Barium compounds, whether soluble or insoluble, find their way into our water systems through natural and human activities. Soluble compounds, such as barium acetate, barium chloride, barium cyanide, barium hydroxide (from decomposing barium sulfide), and barium oxide, pose the most significant health risks as they readily dissolve in water, making it easy for humans to ingest them.
In this article, we delve into the sources of barium in our drinking water, its potential health effects, and the steps we can take to ensure our drinking water remains safe. Let’s dive in and unearth the details about barium in drinking water.
- The average adult ingests low levels of barium from eating grains, fruits, and vegetables, which is generally not harmful. However, consuming high levels of soluble barium salts can be toxic to human health.
- The effects of barium in water include gastrointestinal issues, shortness of breath, muscle weakness, heart damage, paralysis, and even death.
- The EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) for barium is 2.0 mg/L in drinking water. Most water supplies in the United States have concentrations below 0.3 mg/L, but they can be multiples higher than the MCL depending on geographic location.
- The best water treatment methods for barium are an ion exchange system, reverse osmosis system, or water distillation that removes barium and other positively charged ions.
What Is Barium?
Barium is a chemical element represented by the symbol “Ba” on the periodic table. It is a soft, silvery-white metal highly reactive with water and quickly oxidizes in the air. Barium is found naturally in the Earth’s crust and can exist in various forms, including barium sulfate (barite) and barium carbonate.
Barium Sulfate (BaSO4)
It is one of the most common forms of insoluble barium compounds. It is an insoluble compound that occurs naturally as a mineral called barite. Barium sulfate has a high density and is often used in medical imaging procedures like X-rays and CT scans as a contrast agent to enhance visibility. Due to its low solubility, barium sulfate is considered less toxic than different barium compounds.
Barium Carbonate (BaCO3)
It is another compound formed by the combination of barium and carbonate ions. It is a white, odorless powder that is sparingly soluble in water. Barium carbonate has various industrial applications, including manufacturing ceramics, glass, and pigments.
Both barium sulfate and barium carbonate are used in different industries but have other properties and applications. While barium sulfate is primarily used in the medical field for imaging purposes, barium carbonate finds utility in manufacturing processes.
Increased health risks from barium compounds are highly correlated to their water solubility. The more they dissolve in water the greater health risk they present. Furthermore, the lower the pH level in the water, the higher the water solubility will be.
How Does Barium Get Into Water?
Barium, a silvery-white metal found on the periodic (symbol Ba), naturally exists in the earth’s crust. It can enter our water systems in several ways:
- Natural dissolution: The most common way is through the dissolution of naturally occurring barium compounds such as barium sulfate and barium carbonate present in soil and rock. These compounds can leach into groundwater over time.
- Industrial processes: Specific industrial processes use barium compounds like barium acetate, barium chloride, barium cyanide, barium hydroxide, and barium oxide. Improper disposal of waste or runoff from these processes can lead to barium contamination in water. For example, Barium acetate is used in creating rubber, and residues from the production process can enter water systems.
- Petroleum and Mining Activity: Mining activity can dislodge the water contained within rock pores that often contain toxic barium compounds. The water can then contaminate drinking water aquifers and groundwater supplies.
- Coal waste: Barium can be present in high concentrations in coal waste. When coal is washed or processed, barium can end up in surface water or groundwater.
- Landfill leachate: The liquid drains from a landfill can also contain barium, mainly if it contains waste from industrial processes that use barium.
- De-icing products: Barium is sometimes used in de-icing products. Rain can wash away these products into nearby water sources, carrying barium with them.
Note that the level of barium in water can vary greatly depending on the geology of the area and the presence of industry. Regardless of the source, the most significant health risks come from the soluble barium compounds, as they can dissolve in water and be ingested by humans or animals.
What are the Potential Health Effects of Barium?
While barium is a naturally occurring element, excessive exposure to its soluble compounds, such as barium chloride, barium nitrate, barium hydroxide, and others, can have harmful health effects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified barium compounds according to their potential health risks. Here’s what you need to know:
- Gastrointestinal issues: Ingesting high concentrations of these barium compounds can lead to stomach irritation, causing symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
- Cardiac irregularities: Barium exposure may impact the heart rhythm, potentially leading to high blood pressure or other heart-related issues.
- Neurological effects: Large amounts of barium can have detrimental effects on the nervous system, inducing symptoms such as tremors, anxiety, and even paralysis. In severe cases, it can cause brain swelling.
- Respiratory problems: High levels of barium in drinking water may contribute to shortness of breath and other respiratory issues.
- Damage to other organs: Barium compounds that are water-soluble can have a broad impact on health, potentially damaging organs like the eyes, immune system, heart, kidneys, spleen, respiratory system, and skin.
While barium is not classified as a human carcinogen, and low levels found in certain foods like vegetables and grains are not harmful, it’s crucial to ensure the levels of barium in drinking water are within acceptable limits set by the EPA. This can prevent the potential health problems associated with barium exposure.
How Does Barium In Water Effect The Environment?
The presence of barium in water isn’t just a concern for human health; it also has potential implications for our environment.
Water-soluble barium compounds, such as barium acetate, barium chloride, barium nitrate, barium hydroxide, and barium oxide, are more likely to spread in water bodies and soil, posing risks to various ecosystems.
Here’s how barium in water can affect the environment:
- Soil health: High concentrations of barium in the soil can inhibit plant growth and damage soil health. While barium does not readily bind with soil particles, soluble barium compounds can percolate through the ground, contaminating groundwater.
- Aquatic life: Soluble barium compounds in surface water bodies can harm marine life. High levels of barium can negatively affect the reproduction, growth, and overall health of aquatic organisms.
- Wildlife: Animals that drink from contaminated water sources or feed on plants and prey that have absorbed barium can experience health problems. Barium can accumulate in the bodies of animals, potentially causing muscle weakness, heart rhythm irregularities, and other health problems.
Acceptable Levels Of Barium In Drinking Water
The presence of barium in our drinking water is regulated by various environmental and health authorities to ensure the safety of consumers. These regulations are implemented to prevent the potential health risks posed by ingesting soluble barium compounds.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for barium in drinking water at 2.0 mg/L, or 2000 parts per billion (ppb). This limit guides water quality standards nationwide, ensuring that the water supply poses minimal risk to public health.
However, some states have their own guidelines. For instance, California has set a stricter limit of 1 mg/L (or 1000 ppb), while Arizona’s guideline sits at 1.5 mg/L (or 1500 ppb).
Ideally, the level of barium in drinking water should be “not detectable” or less than 1 mg/L. On average, barium concentrations in drinking water across the United States typically fall around 0.03 mg/L. However, in certain regions where groundwater is the primary water source, such as parts of Kentucky, Northern Illinois, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania, barium concentrations can occasionally reach levels up to ten times the EPA’s MCL.
Observations For Barium In Your Water Supply
Like many drinking water contaminants, barium does not have a noticeable odor, taste, or appearance, even at high concentration levels. Here are potential indications that barium is present in your water:
- You have hard water with white scale buildup or coatings on appliances and fixtures.
- Your water has a greyish color to it.
- Your water has a high salt content.
- You’re located in an area with high mining or industrial activity
- If you experience any of the symptoms outlined in the health effects section above
If you have any of the above signs, it is time to test your water for barium contamination.
How To Test For Barium In Water?
Identifying the presence of barium can only be done by testing a water sample from your home, which is essential in areas where barium contamination of the water supply is a known risk. These tests range from certified lab tests to DIY tests that you can conduct at home.
Certified Lab Test
A certified lab test is the most reliable method to test for barium in drinking water. It provides precise and reliable results.
I recommend the Freshnss Labs water test kit that scans for barium and dozens of other harmful contaminants. This test involves collecting a water sample from your supply, which is then sent to an accredited laboratory for analysis. Lab technicians use advanced technology to detect the levels of barium and other elements, like radionuclides, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and more.
DIY Test Kit
A DIY test kit is an alternative for those who prefer a hands-on approach. These test kits are readily available and can be used at home to detect the presence of barium and other metals in your water supply. Using a DIY test kit involves following the instructions to collect a sample, which is then analyzed using the included reagents. While not as comprehensive or accurate as a lab test, DIY kits can indicate whether your water has high concentrations of barium.
Water Quality Reports
Municipal water suppliers are required to test and report the water quality once per year. You can check your zip code’s water Water Quality Report for barium and other water contaminants by searching the EPA consumer confidence database.
How To Effectively Treat Barium In Water
Once you’ve identified the presence of barium in your water, the next step is to treat the water to reduce or eliminate the barium content. Here are some of the most effective treatment technologies for barium removal
Reverse osmosis is a water treatment method that uses pressure to force water through a semi-permeable membrane. This process effectively removes barium and other contaminants from water. Reverse osmosis units can be installed at the point of use, such as under the kitchen sink, to provide treated water for drinking and cooking.
Ion exchange is another effective method for reducing barium levels in water. This process involves replacing the barium ions in the water with less harmful ions, such as sodium or potassium. Ion exchange units are typically installed at the point of entry to treat the entire water supply for a home or building.
Distillation is a process in which water is boiled to create steam and then condensed into liquid form in a separate container. This process separates the water from many contaminants, including barium. While effective, distillation units can be energy-intensive and may not be the most cost-effective solution for large volumes of water.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is barium toxic to humans?
Yes, barium can be toxic to humans in certain forms and high concentrations. While barium itself is not classified as a human carcinogen, water-soluble barium compounds such as barium chloride and barium hydroxide can have harmful health effects when ingested, including muscle weakness, stomach irritation, high blood pressure, and damage to the heart, liver, and other organs.
What is the acceptable limit of barium in drinking water?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for barium in drinking water at 2.0 milligrams per liter (mg/L). However, the ideal level is “undetectable” or less than 1 mg/L. In some states, stricter limits are applied.
What removes barium from water?
The best treatment methods to remove barium include reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and distillation. The chosen method will depend on your water’s barium concentration, water usage, and other specific factors related to your situation.