Despite exaggerated chlorine smell, UI water is safe


Of the thousands of individuals who wash their hands, hydrate, and use water daily on the UI campus, some may be picking up on a distinct odor this winter: chlorine.

But the smell is not the result of an increase of the element in the water, UI Water Plant officials said.

Ken Lloyd, the director of the Water Plant, said it follows a numerous-step treatment process designed to transform surface and well water into a drinkable form.

One step in the process includes disinfecting the water with chlorine dioxide and chlorine, he said.

“It’s gross — I don’t like drinking a swimming pool,” she said.

Although some students said that lately, UI water seems to contain more chlorine than usual, that is not the case, Lloyd said.

During this time of the year, when the warmer temperatures cause snow to melt, there is an increase in the natural organic matter entering the Iowa River.

“This organic material is contained in leaves, other plant materials, and soil that enter the river,” Lloyd said.

UI Water Plant manager Scott Slee said the elevated concentration of organic matter, mixed with the chlorine used in the treatment process, produces a finished water that can have a faint odor or taste.

The concentration of organic matter remains slightly higher than normal before the spring rains wash excess debris away.

“The human nose is very sensitive to odors and can detect trace amounts of chloramines and other odor producing molecules,” Lloyd said. “The combination [of chlorine and organic matter] can cause a bleachy smell.”

These molecules do not pose any health risks, he said.

“The Centers for Disease Control have identified disinfecting drinking water as one of the most significant health advances in history, virtually halting the epidemic occurrence of deadly diseases such as typhoid and cholera,” he said.

While state and federal regulations mandate the presence of disinfectants in treated water, Lloyd said, regulations also strictly limit the amount of both the disinfectants and their byproducts in the water system.

“The university’s drinking water meets all water safety and health regulations, including these,” he said.

Slee said there are a lot of factors to consider when analyzing why the smell is stronger during some years, including the amount of snowfall, rain, and thaws.

For example, Lloyd said, last year in February, the temperature was much colder than it is now, so there was less snow melt. This meant the smell was not as strong last year.

Potter agreed the water was not quite as pungent last year, though it was still noticeable. This year, though, the smell’s getting to her, she said, which has driven her to choose bottled water over the UI’s H20.

“It’s way worse this year,” she said.

But the smell isn’t bothering UI freshman Chad Schuety to the same degree.

“It doesn’t bother me that much,” Schuety said. “I use the drinking fountains to fill up water bottles constantly.”

It is hard to predict how long the smell will remain, Lloyd said, but typically it disappears after a few weeks.

“I’ve noticed it is already better today than it was a few days ago,” he said.

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