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Come On In, the Water's Fine

by Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 11, 1998

It was all in a day’s work for Silvester McBride, but to the campus’s resident frogs and fish he’s a lifesaver.

McBride was the one who scrambled last year when the campus realized that its plans to remove chloramine from the local water supply wouldn’t work.

The chemical, a disinfectant like chlorine, was scheduled to replace chlorine in the local water in a mere three months. If not removed, it would create a host of problems. Chloramine kills gill-breathing animals like fish, tadpoles, newts and other amphibians.

“People suddenly realized that the deionizers we relied on to remove chlorine wouldn’t touch chloramine, and that this could potentially affect all research on campus, in particular biology and chemistry, and would have adverse effects on our ability to culture cells – not to mention the effect on live animals,” McBride said.

“I’ve been worried for a long time,” said emeritus professor George Barlow, who studies fish behavior in the department of integrative biology. “Chlorine is pretty bad, but at least you could remove it easily from the water. Chloramine is ... really hard to remove.”

“You can no longer age tap water and then use if for fish – it would kill them, no doubt about it,” added Tyrone Hayes, who studies the effect of hormones on frogs and toads. “If anything goes wrong, we’ve lost a lot of work with these animals, and I couldn’t replace them easily.”

From biology to chemistry to molecular and cell biology, faculty need pure, chemical-free water to mix solutions, cool lasers, wash gels, culture cells, water plants or provide the right environment for aquatic animals.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) switched to chloramine to reduce the amount of potentially carcinogenic chlorine byproducts in the water – and also to improve the water’s taste. Plus it remains in the water longer than chlorine, which makes it a better disinfectant.

Therein lies the problem. Passing the water through a simple charcoal filter won’t remove chloramine. Charcoal must be in contact with water for three minutes or more to remove enough chloramine for most laboratory use. Heating the water won’t get rid of chloramine, it has to be distilled out. And while chlorine and chlorine byproducts are easily removed by deionizers, chloramine passes right through. It was this discovery late last year that set off a minor panic on campus.

These are the problems that confronted McBride, zone 4 manager for physical plant, last December as he searched for a solution.

While chloramine has replaced chlorine in about 20 percent of all water systems in the country, McBride could find no major research centers that had systematically tackled the problem of removing it.

At Berkeley, where whole buildings are served by a single purification system, a piecemeal solution was out of the question. And chemically treating large quantities of water would be unwieldy.

McBride worked with filter manufacturers to design a unique system that fits neatly into the purification system already in place and works so well that it has drawn the interest of several local firms that conduct a lot of laboratory research, including Bayer Pharmaceuticals and Chiron Corp. The initial bill for the campus, he said, will be nearly $400,000.

The new system McBride put into Koshland Hall is an array of 25 filters, like large scuba tanks, each containing charcoal, coconut shells and ground quartz, which remove all the chloramine from the water. Twenty-two separate systems like this involving 277 filters at $600 each have been installed in more than a dozen buildings, readying the campus for the moment when EBMUD dumps chloramine into our corner of its system. The original injection date has slipped from Feb. 1 to March 28 or later.

McBride is confident his system will remove all the chloramine, and that alarms on the filter systems will alert him if anything goes awry.

“We’re ready now, but the real test won’t come until late March,” he said. Researchers will be anxiously waiting.

As for the advantages of chloramine over chlorine, Martyn Smith, a toxicology expert in the School of Public Health, notes that while various studies have linked chlorinated drinking water with bladder cancer and colorectal cancer, and recently an increased risk of first-trimester miscarriages, few studies of chloramine have been conducted. Its safety is still unknown.

He noted, however, that one experiment involving chloramine-treated water and rats ran into an unsuspected difficulty – the rats wouldn’t drink the water.

For further information, check EBMUD’s web site at

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