Sulfates in Drinking Water
is a naturally occurring compound consisting of calcium (Ca), magnesium
(Mg) or sodium (Na) in combination with sulfur (S), and oxygen (O4)
atoms; thus CaSO4, MgSO4 or Na2SO4.
Consumption of sulfate by humans has a laxative effect.
concentrations, sulfate also has a minor objectionable taste. The
drinking water guideline for sulfate is 500 milligrams per liter (mg/L)
(*). Sulfate (S04) occurs naturally in groundwater.
(*) One mg/L is approximately one drop of the substance in 10 gallons of water
How does sulfate get into the groundwater?
water moves through soil and rock formations that contain sulfate
minerals, some of the sulfate dissolves into the groundwater. Minerals
that contain sulfate include magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt), sodium
sulfate (Glauber's salt), and calcium sulfate (gypsum).
Are there health risks for humans who drink water containing sulfate?
unaccustomed to drinking water with elevated levels of sulfate can
experience diarrhea and dehydration. Infants are often more sensitive
to sulfate than adults. As a precaution, water with a sulfate level
exceeding 400 mg/L should not be used in the preparation of infant
formula. Older children and adults become accustomed to high sulfate
levels after a few days.
Can sulfate harm animals?
are also sensitive to high levels of sulfate. In young animals, high
levels may be associated with severe, chronic diarrhea, and in a few
instances, death. As with humans, animals tend to become accustomed to
sulfate over time. Diluting water high in sulfate with water low in
sulfate can help avoid problems of diarrhea and dehydration in young
animals and animals not accustomed to drinking high sulfate water. The
ratio of water high in sulfate to water low in sulfate can be gradually
increased until the animals can tolerate the high sulfate water.
Can sulfate cause other problems?
If sulfate in water exceeds 250 mg/L, a bitter or medicinal taste may render the water unpleasant
High sulfate levels may also corrode plumbing, particularly
In areas with high sulfate levels, plumbing materials more resistant to corrosion, such as plastic pipe, are commonly used.
How can sulfate be removed from water?
Three types of treatment systems will remove sulfate from drinking water:
- reverse osmosis,
- distillation, or
- ion exchange.
softeners, carbon filters, and sediment filters do not remove sulfate.
Water softeners merely change magnesium or calcium sulfate into sodium
sulfate, which is somewhat more laxative.
osmosis (RO) is a water treatment system that removes most dissolved
substances, such as sulfate, from water by forcing the water through a
cellophane-like plastic sheet.
It can typically remove between 93 and 99 percent of the sulfate in
drinking water. A small counter top RO unit will produce about 3
gallons per day. Slightly larger units that are usually installed under
the sink will produce 5 to 20 gallons per day. RO units typically
produce only 1 gallon of water for every 4 to 10 gallons of water
treated. The remaining water goes to waste.
is a water treatment system that boils water, then cools the steam
until it condenses into a separate container. The dissolved substances,
such as sulfate, are left behind in the boiling pot.
proper operation, distillation units can remove nearly 100 percent of
sulfate. Distillation units require about four hours to produce 1
gallon of water, so this type of treatment uses a considerable amount
of energy in its operation.
Exchange is the most common method of removing large quantities of
sulfate from water for commercial, livestock, and public supplies, but
is not commonly used for individual household water treatment. It is a
process where one element or chemical is switched for another.
people are familiar with water softening, one common type of ion
exchange system. Water softening works by passing "hard" water — water
with calcium and magnesium — through a tank filled with a special resin
saturated with sodium ions. The hardness minerals stick to the resin,
and the sodium is dissolved in the water. Ion exchange systems for
removal of sulfate work in a similar manner, but use a different type
of resin. Sulfate ions in the water exchange places with other ions,
usually chloride, which is on the resin. When the resin is full to
capacity with sulfate, it must be "regenerated" with a salt solution.
softeners for removal of hardness do not remove sulfate, and sulfate
removal systems do not remove hardness, although some commercial units
contain both resins and can remove both hardness and sulfate.
both a water softener and a sulfate removal system are used, the water
softener is usually placed before the sulfate removal system.
Acknowledgment: Minnesota Department of Health, Division of Environmental Health