Barium as a Contaminant in Water
Barium is a divalent cation and alkaline earth metal that can be found in naturally occurring mineral
deposits. The most common ores are found in Alaska, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kentucky,
Montana, Nevada, and Tennessee. In 2010, 670 thousand tons of barite, a natural barium sulfate ore,
were mined in the US, most of it in Nevada. By 2010, 95% of barite sold in US was used as a weighting
agent in natural gas and oil field drilling (USGS, 2011). Although it is also used in making a wide variety
of electronic components, in metal alloys, bleaches, dyes, fireworks, ceramics and glass. Barium is
released to water and soil in the discharge and disposal of drilling wastes, from the smelting of copper,
and the manufacture of motor vehicle parts and accessories.
Sources of Contaminant:
Disposal of drilling wastes
Smelting of copper
Motor vehicle parts manufacturing
Potential Health Effects:
Difficulties in breathing, increased blood pressure, changes in heart
rhythm, stomach irritation, brain swelling, muscle weakness, and damage
to the liver, kidney, heart, and spleen.
Treatment Methods (Residential):
Treatment Methods (Municipal):
The health effects of the different barium compounds depend on how well the compound dissolves
in water. Barium compounds that do not dissolve well in water are not generally harmful and are often
used by doctors for medical purposes. If the sulfate concentration in the water is high, then the
precipitation of barium as a sulfate salt reduces its potential for adverse health effects.
Those barium compounds that dissolve well in water may cause harmful health effects in people.
Ingesting high levels of soluble barium compounds over the short term has resulted in difficulties in
breathing, increased blood pressure, changes in heart rhythm, stomach irritation, brain swelling, muscle
weakness, and damage to the liver, kidney, heart, and spleen.
Animal studies have found increased blood pressure and changes in the heart from ingesting barium
over a long time. Based on such studies, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA)
has set a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) at 2.0 mg/L (or ppm) in water.
When proper regeneration procedures are employed, barium along with calcium and magnesium are
effectively exchanged to sodium by conventional point-of-entry (POE) cation exchange water softeners.
Barium break through occurs after hardness due the three times greater affinity of barium ions over
either calcium or magnesium ions for cation exchange water softening resins.
Point-of-use (POU) reverse osmosis and distillation are also effective at reducing barium
concentrations in drinking water.
There are many POU and POE units of this type tested and certified for effective barium reduction.
Consumers can make use of such information by contacting the Water Quality Association, NSF
International, and Underwriters Laboratories.
Any treatment method that concentrates barium, as is the case with ion exchange softening, reverse
osmosis, and distillation may cause precipitation. Barium sulfate will precipitate at concentrations of 2
ppm or greater. If the sulfate level in the raw water is greater than 2 ppm, barium sulfate precipitation is
likely. Over time this precipitation may coat and foul the system. Barium sulfate is very insoluble and
difficult to clean and may thus require replacement of membrane modules, the resin media, or even
distiller heating elements after some time of usage.
As part of the installation procedure of a POE system, its performance characteristics should be
verified by tests conducted under established test procedures and water analyses. Thereafter, if high
barium is found to be present in the influent water, the treated water should be monitored periodically to
verify continued performance. The water treatment equipment must be controlled diligently to ensure
that acceptable feedwater conditions and equipment capacity are not exceeded.
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