Page 2: Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Haloacetic Acids

1.0 Guideline

 The maximum acceptable concentration (MAC) for total haloacetic acidsFootnote *   in drinking water is 0.08 mg/L (80 µg/L) based on a locational running annual average of a minimum of quarterly samples taken in the distribution system.

Utilities should make every effort to maintain concentrations as low as reasonably achievable (or ALARA) without compromising the effectiveness of disinfection.

2.0 Executive summary

Haloacetic acids (HAAs) are a group of compounds that can form when the chlorine used to disinfect drinking water reacts with naturally occurring organic matter (e.g., decaying leaves and vegetation). The use of chlorine in the treatment of drinking water has virtually eliminated waterborne diseases, because chlorine can kill or inactivate most microorganisms commonly found in water. The majority of drinking water treatment plants in Canada use some form of chlorine to disinfect drinking water: to treat the water directly in the treatment plant and/or to maintain a chlorine residual in the distribution system to prevent bacterial regrowth. Disinfection is an essential component of public drinking water treatment; the health risks from disinfection by-products, including haloacetic acids, are much less than the risks from consuming water that has not been appropriately disinfected.

The haloacetic acids most commonly found in drinking water are monochloroacetic acid (MCA), dichloroacetic acid (DCA), trichloroacetic acid (TCA), monobromoacetic acid (MBA) and dibromoacetic acid (DBA). Of these, DCA and TCA have been most extensively studied, and there are some scientific data available on MCA and DBA. However, insufficient data were available to allow the development of an individual guideline for MBA.

This Guideline Technical Document reviews the health risks associated with haloacetic acids in drinking water. It assesses all identified health risks, taking into account new studies and approaches, as well as treatment considerations. Exposure to haloacetic acids from drinking water through inhalation and skin contact has been considered for inclusion, but is not deemed significant. Based on this review, the guideline for total haloacetic acids in drinking water is established at a maximum acceptable concentration of 0.08 mg/L. This guideline takes into consideration the availability of appropriate treatment technologies and the ability of treatment plants to meet the guideline without compromising the effectiveness of disinfection.

2.1 Health effects

The health effects associated with exposure to haloacetic acids will vary with the specific compound. MCA is considered unlikely to be carcinogenic to humans, based on the lack of evidence for carcinogenicity. Changes in body, liver, kidney and testes weights were observed in studies with rats. A health-based target concentration of 0.1 mg/L can be calculated for MCA in drinking water. DCA is considered to be a probable carcinogen to humans, based on sufficient evidence in animals and inadequate evidence in humans. Animal studies have shown links between exposure to DCA and liver tumours in both mice and rats. A health-based target concentration of 0.01 mg/L can be calculated for DCA in drinking water. TCA is considered to be a possible carcinogen in humans, based on limited evidence in experimental animals and inadequate evidence in humans. Animal studies have shown a link between exposure to TCA and liver tumours in mice only, but it is still uncertain whether the mechanism causing these tumours is relevant to humans. A health-based target concentration of 0.3 mg/L can be calculated for TCA in drinking water. MBA is unclassifiable with respect to carcinogenicity in humans, based on inadequate data from animal studies. DBA is considered to be probably carcinogenic in humans, based on sufficient evidence in animals and inadequate evidence in humans. Animal studies have shown links between exposure to DBA and tumours in several organs in both mice and rats. A health-based target concentration of 0.002 mg/L can be calculated for DBA in drinking water.

There is only one study currently available looking at the incidence or significance of health effects associated with human exposure to haloacetic acids. A small population-based study that was conducted in two eastern provinces did not find a link between exposure to haloacetic acids and risk of stillbirths. Other human studies on the incidence of cancer or reproductive effects have been conducted with chlorinated disinfection by-products, but not specifically with haloacetic acids.

Some animal studies suggest a possible link between developmental effects (heart defects) and exposure to DCA or TCA, whereas other studies fail to show a link. Animal studies also suggest a possible link between male reproductive effects (on sperm and sperm formation) and exposure to DCA or DBA, at levels significantly higher than those found in drinking water. Further studies are required to confirm these effects as well as their long-term significance to human health.

A single guideline for total haloacetic acids is established, based on the health effects of the individual haloacetic acids, and taking into consideration both treatment technology and the ability of treatment plants, particularly smaller ones, to achieve the guideline. The guideline is considered to be protective of health for all haloacetic acids, based on the ratio of haloacetic acids expected to be found in drinking water. The guideline value is primarily designed to be protective of the health effects of DCA, the haloacetic acid that would pose the most significant health concerns and is found at the highest levels in drinking water.

2.2 Exposure

Levels of haloacetic acids are generally higher in treated surface water than in treated groundwater, because of the high organic content in lakes and rivers. Levels of haloacetic acids will be higher in warmer months, because of the higher concentrations of precursor organic materials in the raw water and especially because the rate of formation of disinfection by-products increases at higher temperatures. It should be noted that the presence of by-products such as MBA and DBA will also depend on the presence of bromine in the source water.

Available data suggest that drinking water may be a significant source of exposure to haloacetic acids, but there are few data available to determine the exposure from other media, such as food and air.

2.3 Treatment

Haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes are the two major groups of chlorinated disinfection by-products found in drinking water and generally at the highest levels. Together, these two groups can be used as indicators for the presence of all chlorinated disinfection by-products in drinking water supplies, and their control is expected to reduce the levels of all chlorinated disinfection by-products and the corresponding risks to health.

The approach to reduce exposure to haloacetic acids is generally focused on reducing the formation of chlorinated disinfection by-products. The concentrations of haloacetic acids and other chlorinated disinfection by-products in drinking water can be reduced at the treatment plant by removing the organic matter from the water before chlorine is added, by optimizing the disinfection process, by using alternative disinfection methods or by using a different water source. It is critical that any method used to control levels of haloacetic acids must not compromise the effectiveness of disinfection. The Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Drinking Water also recommends that every effort be made not only to meet the guideline, but to maintain concentrations of haloacetic acids as low as reasonably achievable.

3.0 Application of the guideline

Note: Specific guidance related to the implementation of this guideline should be obtained from the appropriate drinking water authority in the affected jurisdiction.

The concentrations of haloacetic acids (HAAs) and trihalomethanes (THMs) can be used as indicators of the total loading of all chlorinated disinfection by-products (CDBPs) that may be found in drinking water supplies. The guideline for HAAs is also designed to take into consideration exposure and potential health effects related to other CDBPs, on which very little is known. The guideline is measured as a locational running annual average of quarterly samples, because HAA levels can vary significantly over time, including seasonally, with factors such as the levels of organic matter in the raw water and temperature.

Given the limited information on the risks and uncertainties associated with other CDBPs, it is recommended that treatment plants strive to maintain HAA levels as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA) without compromising disinfection. This should also be considered when changes, upgrades or expansions are made to the treatment plants or distribution systems. Any effort aimed at reducing disinfection by-products, such as changing disinfection strategies, needs to be considered in light of changes in water quality that may inadvertently increase the levels or leaching of other contaminants, such as lead, in the distributed water.

Table 1 lists the estimated lifetime (70 years) risk of excess liver cancer (in addition to the background lifetime cancer risk) associated with the ingestion of HAAs in drinking water at various concentrations, based on animal studies. It is expressed as a range, which represents estimated proportions of 40-60% of DCA in total HAAs.

Table 1: Estimated lifetime range of risk of excess liver cancer (in addition to the background lifetime cancer risk) from exposure to DCA associated with various concentrations of HAAs in drinking water
Levels of HAAs in drinking water (µg/L) Estimated lifetime range of risk of excess cancers (×10-5)Footnote a
Table 1 Footnote a

The estimated lifetime range of risk of excess cancers above background levels is calculated from the risk associated with ingesting DCA at a concentration of 1 µg/L in drinking water, assuming a proportion of 40-60% of DCA in total HAAss.

Return to table 1 footnote a referrer

40 1.6-2.4
60 2.4-3.6
80 3.2-4.8
100 4.0-6.0
120 4.8-7.2

3.1 Monitoring

At a minimum, quarterly monitoring of treated water from surface water and groundwater sources is recommended for total HAAs. Increased frequency of monitoring may be required for facilities using surface water sourcesFootnote ** during periods when water characteristics are more favourable to the formation of by-products, which will vary according to the specific system. Since total HAA concentrations vary within and between distribution systems, depending on different factors, including water quality characteristics (e.g., HAA precursors, pH, season, temperature) and treatment conditions (e.g., disinfectant type, disinfectant dose, contact time), it is recommended that monitoring samples be taken at the water treatment plant and at points in the distribution system where historical data show the highest HAA concentrations.

Where historical data are not available, program should be put in place to monitor HAA levels in the middle and extremities of the distribution system. Areas with extremely low or no disinfectant residual should be avoided, but areas where disinfectant residuals are significantly lower than the system average because of a long residence time (e.g., dead ends, low flow areas) should be targeted. In systems with booster chlorination stations and water tanks or reservoirs, it is expected that higher HAA concentrations would be found downstream of these components.

Monitoring/reporting may be reduced if drinking water monitoring does not show elevated levels of disinfection by-products within the distribution system.

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