Water Disinfection Methods

Many people in most developing countries suffer from the inadequacy or hazardous condition of public water supplies (WHO 1985). A wide variety of known waterborne diseases, including those associated with children's diarrhea, are rampant (Tartakow and Vorperian 1980; Feachem et al. 1983; WHO 1984, 1987). This prompted the establishment of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade. It aims at providing about 90% of the human population with an adequate, safe community water supply by 1990 (WHO 1985).

In Lebanon, the shortage of community water supplies, their actual or potential pollution from anthropogenic sources, inadequate treatment, and the resultant spread of associated diseases are still unresolved problems (Acra et al. 1985). To curb these issues would require implementing feasible measures for prevention and treatment. These should include sanitation and disinfection of drinking water.

Physical methods

Formation of mutagenic and carcinogenic agents in water and wastewater effluent treated with chlorine has prompted research to seek alternative disinfecting methods that would minimize environmental and public health impacts. The technology, based on nonchemical methods, is undergoing rapid development. Some techniques are already available commercially. This category is represented by techniques employing such physical principles for disinfection as W radiation, ultrasound, ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, heating, freezing, and ionizing radiation (Cheremissinoff et al. 1981). Disinfecting small quantities of water by pasteurizing with heat or solar energy is a technology with some potential, but requires further development (Cheremissinoff et al. 1981; Ciochetti and Metcalf 1984). The recently developed method for water disinfection by direct exposure to solar radiation (Acra et al. 1980, 1984) is further described in the following sections.

Chemical methods

Chemical methods depend mostly on selected chemicals with oxidizing and biocidal properties. Their practical applications range from removing undesirable constituents to disinfecting water supplies, wastewater treatment effluent, or industrial waters. The most commonly used chemicals include ozone, chlorine and some of its compounds, potassium permanganate, and hydrogen peroxide.

Ozone has been used for water disinfection for about 80 years in France, Germany, and other European countries. It is now undergoing a critical evaluation as a possible alternative to chlorine when used alone or in conjunction with other disinfection systems (Foster et al. 1980; Kott et al. 1980; Dolora et al. 1981; Venosa 1983; Rakness et al. 1984; Wickramanayake et al. 1984; Den-Blanken 1985). There is some evidence that it forms smaller amounts of hazardous trihalomethanes (THM) when employed to treat polluted waters or wastewater effluent than either chlorine or chlorine dioxide. However, its potential for producing other equally toxic substances is still not clearly defined (Glaze 1987). Ozonation has become popular in North America partly because of its superiority over chlorination. It enhances the coagulation process despite its inherent weakness in leaving practically no residual in the distribution system.

Interhalogen compounds, formed from two different halogens, resemble their parent substances in properties and germicidal characteristics. The interhalogens BrCl, ICl, and IBr have recently been investigated as possible alternative disinfectants for water and wastewater effluent (Groninger and Mills 1980; Cheremissinoff et al. 1981). Added to water, they rapidly hydrolyze to the corresponding hypohalous acids, which are stronger oxidants and disinfectants than hypochlorous acid. For instance, BrCl is hydrolyzed to HCl and HOBr. However, their improved germicidal activity is counterbalanced by the formation of haloforms. They react with humates in water or wastewater effluent by the haloform reaction (HOBr, for example, reacts with humates yielding bromoform). In this context, hypobromite would be formed in seawater by reaction of the natural bromides with hypochlorites in chlorinated wastewater effluent or cooling waters from power plants (Sugam and Helz 1980; Wong 1982; Bousher et al. 1986). This also applies to natural waters rich in bromides with subsequent formation of bromoform and other trihalomethanes (Amy et al. 1984; Rav-Acha, Choshen et al. 1985; Rav-Acha, Serri et al. 1985; Ishikawa et al. 1986; Guttman-Bass et al. 1987). Consequently, coastal groundwater affected by seawater infiltration should create some concern if used for drinking.

Using hydrogen peroxide for water disinfection began in the 1950s in Eastern Europe (Laubusch 1971). Although it has been well known for its high oxidative and germicidal activity, its application as a water disinfectant has not gained wide acceptance. Its increasing use, however, has been noted (Gaudy and Gaudy 1980). The degradation of organic matter in water treated sequentially with up to 0.5% by weight of hydrogen peroxide and W radiation (>200 nm) has been reported (Malaiyandi et al. 1982). In another form of application, hydrogen peroxide produced no significant oxidation of soluble manganese in water containing organic matter in the pH range of 5.0-8.0 (Knocke et al. 1987). A newly marketed product (Sanosil, Sanosil AG, Feldmeilen, Switzerland) is claimed to be applicable to large-scale water disinfection; its effective bacteriostatic and fungicidal activity has been demonstrated at concentrations of 10-35 mg/L on Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Streptococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeroginosa, Proteus mirabilis, Micobacter spp., Clamidia sporogenes, and Candida albicans. The two active biocidal constituents of this product are hydrogen peroxide and colloidal silver.

Chlorination and dechlorination

The use of chlorine and some of its derivatives will continue as an integral part of the disinfection process in water and wastewater treatment. This also applies to developing countries, where this mode of disinfection is fairly well established (Mara 1978; Droste and McJunkin 1982; Smethurst 1983). Apart from almost a century of chlorination practices (Laubusch 1962a, b; Cheremissinoff et al. 1981), two other favourable determinants are the technical expertise already acquired and the relatively low costs involved. In the wake of the recent discovery of the formation of THM in chlorinated natural waters (Rook 1974), and their potential health hazards (Glaze et al. 1980; Williamson 1981; Carpenter and Beresford 1986), its credibility is diminishing.

Alternative disinfecting agents such as chlorine dioxide (Rav-Acha et al. 1985b), UV light (Severin et al. 1984; Scheible 1987), and UV light in conjunction with hydrogen peroxide (Crandall 1986) are being considered. However, the formation of mutagens and carcinogens in chlorinated waters and wastewaters can be abolished or minimized by modifying the unit processes (Stelter et al. 1984; Fiessinger et al. 1985; Finger et al. 1985; Huang et al. 1985; Kool et al. 1985; Moyers and Wu 1985; Suh and Abdel-Rahman 1985; Means et al. 1986; Rogers and Lauer 1986; Guttman-Bass et al. 1987; Knocke et al. 1987). The potential health impacts that are yet to be clearly discerned and the toxicity to aquatic life resulting from discharged chlorinated effluent (Brungs 1973; Jolley et al. 1980) do not seem to outweigh the public health benefits derived from chlorination practices (Cortruvo 1985). However, as the controversy continues, epidemiological studies (Craun 1985) and the pertinent drinking water standards and legislation (Toft 1985) are being revised.

Reactions of chlorine in water that form the basis for its application as a disinfectant and oxidant are as follows:

    Cl2 + H20 --> HCl + HOCl

    HOCl --> H+ + OCl-

These reactions in water devoid of other inorganic or organic matter that could react with chlorine are pH and temperature dependent. The products, hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and hypochlorite ions (OCl-, are referred to as free available chlorine (FAC). The biocidal activity is attributed chiefly to HOCl, as it is more effective than the OCl-. In the presence of natural or added ammonium ions, HOCl reacts to form chloramines, known as combined available chlorine (CAC). As a disinfectant, FAC is more effective. It is essential to chlorinate beyond the subsequent attainment of FAC at the desired level for optimal biocidal effectiveness ("free residual" chlorination).

The influencing factors to be considered in chlorination practices are the following:

  • chlorine concentration,
  • contact time,
  • pH,
  • temperature, and
  • interfering substances.
The relationship between chlorine concentration (C, milligrams per litre) and contact time (T, minutes) required for a specific percentage destruction of microorganisms is expressed as a constant (CT = K) (Gaudy and Gaudy 1980). The proper use of this CT relationship to determine adequate water chlorination requirements has been emphasized as an approach to prevent and control waterborne diseases. Minimum CT values of 15-30 for systems using groundwater as a source and 100-150 for those using surface supplies have been recommended (Lippy 1986). Based on these values, the required FAC concentration can be determined mathematically for a given contact time. Once the chlorine demand (D) for a water supply is determined by testing, then the optimal chlorine dose to attain the desired free chlorine residual (C) can be calculated by addition: chlorine dose = D + C.

One of the factors in the many waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States in the past decades was failure to comply with the CT relationship in chlorination practices (Lippy and Waltrip 1984; Bitton et al. 1986; Lippy 1986; Williams and Akin 1986). In addition, the need for the disinfection of wastewater discharged into streams has been emphasized and justified by the 23 different kinds of pathogenic organisms present in wastewater from US communities (Shertzer 1986).

Excess chlorine residuals can be controlled by a dechlorination procedure. Of the various chemicals used for the partial or complete removal of the residual chlorine in water or wastewater, sulfur dioxide gas (SO2) is the most common (Laubusch 1971; Cheremissinoff et al. 1981; Finger et al. 1985; Huang et al. 1985). Dechlorination is often applied to heavily dosed water supplies as they are aesthetically objectionable to consumers or undesirable for industrial water uses. Chlorinated cooling waters and wastewaters need to be dechlorinated before discharging into water bodies in view of their toxicity to aquatic life. They have also potentially harmful effects because of the formed THM.

Household methods

There are many situations where individuals or families would need to resort to simple and effective methods for drinking-water disinfection. These include the following:
  • catastrophic conditions leading to displacement (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, wars, or civil disturbances);
  • emergencies arising from flourishing waterborne diseases; and
  • resident populations and foreigners at risk in endemic areas with unsafe water supplies.
Physical methods (boiling or the use of ceramic filters), chemical methods (chlorine compounds in solution or tablet form, e.g., sodium hypochlorite solutions, calcium hypochlorite tablets, organic chlorine compounds, iodine solution, and organic iodine compounds) and others have been recommended for such cases (Morris et al. 1953; Gershenfeld 1957; Hadfield 1957; Cox 1969; O'Connor and Cooper 1970; WHO 1972, 1973; Rajagopalan and Shiffman 1974; UNHCR 1982).

None of these methods is entirely free from practical problems that could induce users to revert to untreated water. Fuelwood, for instance, for boiling is no longer a tenable practice, particularly in areas where it is absent or being depleted. Besides, the flat taste of boiled water discourages some consumers. The diverse types of ceramic filters have a wide range of pore sizes and present difficulties in selection. They suffer frequent clogging of the ceramic candles and often leak through disguised fine cracks. Proprietary halogen preparations frequently lead to consumer complaints and rejection because of the undesirable tastes and odours imparted to the water. It is especially so if high doses are applied inadvertently or as required in cases of heavily polluted waters. Relief agencies are often trapped in a dilemma by the requirements for importing and distributing, in addition to shortages, cost acceptability, and expiry dates. These issues encourage attempts to resolve them through the development of practical and effective techniques, simple enough to be applied by individuals or households.


The concept of photodynamic inactivation (PDI) of microorganisms evolved from experiments made in the early l9th century. It was firmly established, however, after the discovery of the inactivation of Paramecium spp. by visible light in the presence of an exogenous photosensitizing dye (acridine) (Raab 1900). Two types of photosensitizing compounds are known (Harrison 1967; Chamberlin and Mitchell 1978; Senger 1980):
  • exogenous: fluorescent substances or dyes such as eosin, methylene blue, and benzopyrene; and
  • endogenous: porphyrins, cytochromes, cytochrome oxidase, aromatic amino acids, flavins, tryptophan, and chlorophylls.
Several microorganisms and aquatic ecosystems have shown sensitivity to solar UVR, including viruses, algae, and fungi (Perdrau and Todd 1933; Hiatt et al. 1960; Crowther and Melnick 1961; Jagger 1967, 1981; Billen and Green 1975; Berry and Noton 1976; Propst and Lubin 1978; Acher and Elgavish 1980; Calkins and Thordardottir 1980; Kapuscinski and Mitchell 1981; Worrest et al. 1981; Jabara 1984; Wei et al. 1985). The rapid destruction of saprophytic strains of Mycoplasma by artificial visible light in the presence of toluidine blue and air has been reported (Cooney and Krinsky 1972). Coliforms in water and sewage have been completely inactivated by exposure to sunlight for about 1 h in the presence of methylene blue or rose bengal; the added dye is removed by absorption on bentonite (Acher and Juven 1977). A new technique for the photodynamic disinfection of municipal and industrial wastewaters, which also results in the photodegradation of pesticides and anionic surfactants therein, has been suggested. The technique is based on the use of exogenous dye sensitizers, aeration, and sunlight, with the possibility of reusing the treated effluent for crop irrigation (Acher 1985).

Aquatic photochemistry

Photochemical reactions induced by natural or artificial light have been known for some time, but much of this field remains obscure. Of particular interest is the photochemistry of the hydrosphere, which is continuously experiencing light-induced chemical reactions in the surface layer (photic zone). Inorganic and organic chemical pollutants in natural surface waters capable of absorbing solar energy with consequent chemical changes, referred to as photoreactive chromophores, can lead to direct photolysis reactions. Some of the better known chromophores include inorganic substances such as nitrites, nitrates, iodates, hydrogen peroxide, and ferrous compounds (Zafiriou et al. 1984).

The fate of disinfectants added to wastewater effluent and cooling waters used in industries that are discharged to surface waters is of importance in aquatic biology. Sunlight plays a prime role in their photodecomposition, as was demonstrated with experiments in which hypochlorite and hypobromite (formed by interaction of chlorine and natural bromides in seawater) were found to be photosensitive, the latter being easier to decompose (Wong 1982). In addition, volatilization into the atmosphere has been proposed as a possible pathway for the dissipation of the haloforms formed in water, with subsequent enhanced dilution and further photochemical degradation (Groninger and Mills 1980). Decay and dissipation models for chlorine residuals in natural waters have been developed. These models predict that the nocturnal discharge of chlorinated effluent would have a much greater impact on aquatic life, given the absence of light-induced decomposition (Lin et al. 1983; Yamomoto et al. 1985).

The photochemical reactions of the hypohalites formed in aqueous solutions of chlorine, bromine, and iodine are somewhat similar, except for the absorption spectra and reaction rates (Allmand et al. 1927; Allmand and Webb 1928; Farkas and Klein 1948). Their photodecomposition is wavelength-dependent, with increased decay rates in the shorter wavebands within the spectral region of 200-440 nm and the possible liberation of the highly reactive singlet oxygen, as has been noted for the surface of fresh and coastal waters (Zafiriou et al. 1984). It can be postulated, then, that aqueous halogen solutions are subject to photodecomposition by the effective radiation in the UV-B, UV-A, and blue light bands of the solar spectrum, and that these reactions could be of practical importance.