Smokey water: Tobacco nitrosamines are disinfection byproducts

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Water treatment plants are there to prevent harmful compounds reaching the wider environment or entering our drinking water and by-and-large they perform that duty remarkably well. But not always. Ironically, the treatment process itself produces a number of unwanted products that have been labelled disinfection byproducts (DBPs), some of which are potentially carcinogenic. These are the group known as nitrosamines, several of which have been identified and measured in the effluent from wastewater plants. The most common of these is N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA).

Although several nitrosamines are known to be present in water, there are a lot more yet to be discovered according to a published N-nitrosamines assay. It revealed a total load far in excess of those that are already accounted for. This discrepancy led a group of scientists in North America to look for sources of other nitrosamines and they focused on those related to tobacco.

Xing-Fang Li and colleagues from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, La Verne, USA thought that the so-called tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) might be found in water. They are present in tobacco smoke and are known to be carcinogenic. They could emerge in smokers’ urine to contaminate water supplies, or might also be found in water following their formation during the disinfection process.

Their suspicions could not be realised straightaway because they needed a sensitive method for detecting and measuring TSNAs in water down to their expected ng/L levels. They decided to use LC/MS because of its earlier success on other nitrosamines in water.

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