What are Chlorine and Chloramines?

We all know about chlorine in our tap water since it is deliberately added in the purification process, but are you familiar with its close relative of chloramine? Understanding both of these chemicals is a good place to start if you want to learn more about the water you drink every day.

What is Chloramine?
Chlorine is fairly commonly understood as a basic elemental compound, but fewer people are familiar with chloramine so a little extra explanation is necessary. The actual formula for chloramine is NH2Cl and its formed by combining regular chlorine with ammonia. Other chemical forms can exist such as NHCl2 or even NCl3 but they tend to convert readily back and forth so the term “chloramine” is used for all the different formulas.

Why are They Important?
Both of these chemicals are used in municipal water treatment facilities as a way of removing dangerous organic pathogens, bacteria and parasites from the water. Chlorine alone has long been the typical element for this and we are all familiar with that taste in unfiltered tap water. For various reasons (to be discussed in a moment) some plants are switching to chloramines instead. They are both important because of their potential health impact. Anything that gets added to your drinking water is something worth knowing about.

Making the Comparison
The switch to chloramine is being made for a few reasons. The main one is that chloramine is active in water for a longer period of time than chlorine which makes it a more effective disinfectant. It will do a better job of killing bacteria simply by lasting longer. Another significant improvement with the use of chloramine is that the taste of chlorine is greatly reduced and the overall water flavor is much better. Even with these positives, both chloramine and chlorine are compounds better filtered out of your drinking water if you can.

One negative of chloramine is the same as the positive, that it lasts longer in the water. That does mean a more effective round of disinfecting, but it also means that there will be more chloramine remaining in the water when it comes through your tap. Also, chloramine will degrade over time and release additional elements of ammonia and nitrates into the water, which are both contaminants in their own right and can cause health problems when consumed too frequently. It will also create additional chlorine in the water at the same time.

Health Effects
The EPA regulates chlorine content the water so it should always be below a level where it will start to have detrimental effects to your health. Even so, chlorine and chloramine are irritants and will cause inflammation of the eyes and nose, and there can also be negative effects on the nervous system if too much of these compounds is consumed.

Should You Filter?

The main point to make here is that you can’t really judge the quality of your water simply by the taste. If you are drinking local water that has been treated with chloramine, it won’t have that “bleachy” aftertaste but it can still have unwanted chemicals in it. Thankfully, both chlorine and chloramine can be removed with charcoal filters. Chlorine will be eliminated with any standard type of activated charcoal, but you will have to get a more specialized carbon filter to fully remove the chloramine.