Why experts say the chlorine smell, taste to Columbia’s water shouldn’t worry you

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Published: Jul. 26, 2022 at 8:31 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 26, 2022 at 8:36 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Many Columbia Water customers are experiencing a funky smell and taste to their water for the second time this summer.

On Monday, the utility said an issue with its ammonia feed caused many customers downtown to notice a chlorine-like smell and taste to their water.

Columbia Water spokesperson Robert Yanity said the system was flushed to pull through better tasting and smelling water, but it could take a couple of days to reach all customers.

He did say that some should already be seeing improvements.

Both Yanity and Susan Richardson, a University of South Carolina Chemistry and Biochemistry professor, said that the presence of these chemicals in water is normal, and it is safe to drink.

Richardson, who has done extensive research on drinking water and its disinfectants, said residents should not be worried about this recent inconvenience.

Ammonia is often mixed with chlorine to treat drinking water, and kill bacteria and harmful pathogens, she said.

The resulting compound is called chloramine. When the consistency is not right, the water can still have a chlorine-like scent.

“It is totally safe,” Richardson said. “EPA has limits set on the levels of chlorine and chloramine that can be present in the drinking water and Columbia always has well under those levels in our drinking water.”

Richardson said chloramine acts as a disinfectant throughout the distribution system as water gets to customers’ homes.

“So, all those pipes, once the water leaves the drinking water treatment plant, comes through all the pipes that are underground to your home, that chloramine residual disinfectant is still there,” she said. “That’s important because we don’t want to have bacteria regrowing in our distribution system in those pipes. So, to keep the pipes clean, to continue to keep the water clean of those microorganisms, chloramine is a good choice for that.”

Beginning in early June, Columbia’s water had an earthy taste and smell for several weeks. Columbia Water officials attributed this to high levels of geosmin, which is a compound associated with algae.

Geosmin levels peaked at 900 parts per trillion during this period.

Due to high algae levels, the utility used activated carbon to remove the algae from the water.

Richardson says that typically acts as a “sponge” to filter out the algae.

The utility also took the unprecedented step to add copper sulfate, which Richardson described as a “harsher chemical,” to the water to remove the dirt-like taste and smell.

“They had to resort to extraordinary means to get rid of this last algal event, it was just very hard to deal with,” Richardson said.

Yanity said the algae levels are currently below the level detectible by humans, which is 5 parts per trillion.

“We do see trace amounts as we test and it’s usually under that 5 parts per trillion, and that’s what we’ve been seeing ever since that algae bloom has kind of moved its way down the Broad River,” he said. “We haven’t seen much over 5 parts per trillion, and of course, that’s incoming. We again are treating that so that there’s virtually no taste or odor issues with geosmin at this time.”

Several Columbia Water customers said the recent issue with the water’s smell and taste has been frustrating.

“It’s very off-putting, it almost tastes like pool water,” Alexander Murcia said. “It’s not something I want to be drinking.”

After the algae bloom earlier this summer, Patrick Lowery stopped drinking Columbia’s water altogether.

“I think the number one rule is for most people that if you don’t like the way it smells, you don’t drink it, eat it or it’s perfume you won’t put it on,” he said. “There was a time, I always joked that I used to think it was crazy that people bought bottled water because the city water is good to go. Now I guess the joke’s on me. I won’t drink the city water and I’d rather pay for bottled water.”

When asked to respond to these concerns, Yanity apologized on behalf of the utility.

“Even with the issues over the summer, it was inconvenient of course but the water was always safe to drink, and the same way with this concern right now,” he said. “We apologize for the inconvenience, but rest assured, your water is safe to drink.”

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