Disinfection by-products (DBPs) are formed when disinfectants (chlorine, ozone, chlorine dioxide, or chloramines) react with naturally occurring organic matter, anthropogenic contaminants, bromide, and iodide during the production of drinking water. Here we review 30 years of research on the occurrence, genotoxicity, and carcinogenicity of 85 DBPs, 11 of which are currently regulated by the U.S., and 74 of which are considered emerging DBPs due to their moderate occurrence levels and/or toxicological properties. These 74 include halonitromethanes, iodo-acids and other unregulated halo-acids, iodo-trihalomethanes (THMs), and other unregulated halomethanes, halofuranones (MX [3-chloro-4-(dichloromethyl)-5-hydroxy-2(5H)-furanone] and brominated MX DBPs), haloamides, haloacetonitriles, tribromopyrrole, aldehydes, and N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) and other nitrosamines. Alternative disinfection practices result in drinking water from which extracted organic material is less mutagenic than extracts of chlorinated water. However, the levels of many emerging DBPs are increased by alternative disinfectants (primarily ozone or chloramines) compared to chlorination, and many emerging DBPs are more genotoxic than some of the regulated DBPs. Our analysis identified three categories of DBPs of particular interest. Category 1 contains eight DBPs with some or all of the toxicologic characteristics of human carcinogens: four regulated (bromodichloromethane, dichloroacetic acid, dibromoacetic acid, and bromate) and four unregulated DBPs (formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, MX, and NDMA). Categories 2 and 3 contain 43 emerging DBPs that are present at moderate levels (sub- to low-μg/L): category 2 contains 29 of these that are genotoxic (including chloral hydrate and chloroacetaldehyde, which are also a rodent carcinogens); category 3 contains the remaining 14 for which little or no toxicological data are available. In general, the brominated DBPs are both more genotoxic and carcinogenic than are chlorinated compounds, and iodinated DBPs were the most genotoxic of all but have not been tested for carcinogenicity. There were toxicological data gaps for even some of the 11 regulated DBPs, as well as for most of the 74 emerging DBPs. A systematic assessment of DBPs for genotoxicity has been performed for ∼60 DBPs for DNA damage in mammalian cells and 16 for mutagenicity in Salmonella. A recent epidemiologic study found that much of the risk for bladder cancer associated with drinking water was associated with three factors: THM levels, showering/bathing/swimming (i.e., dermal/inhalation exposure), and genotype (having the GSTT1-1 gene). This finding, along with mechanistic studies, highlights the emerging importance of dermal/inhalation exposure to the THMs, or possibly other DBPs, and the role of genotype for risk for drinking-water-associated bladder cancer. More than 50% of the total organic halogen (TOX) formed by chlorination and more than 50% of the assimilable organic carbon (AOC) formed by ozonation has not been identified chemically. The potential interactions among the 600 identified DBPs in the complex mixture of drinking water to which we are exposed by various routes is not reflected in any of the toxicology studies of individual DBPs. The categories of DBPs described here, the identified data gaps, and the emerging role of dermal/inhalation exposure provide guidance for drinking water and public health research.
- Regulated and unregulated DBPs
- Total organic carbon
- Total organic halogen
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis