Ammonia is a highly soluble gas that is often found in drinking water due to environmental processes, water treatment, and industrial process wastes. Although ammonia toxicity through drinking water is rare, high ammonia levels may be detected in certain water sources.
This glossary will share the most important information about ammonia in water, including how ammonia enters water supplies, the risks of drinking ammonia contaminated water, and how to protect your family from ammonia.
Table of Contents
- ❔ What is Ammonia?
- 🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Ammonia?
- 🚰 How Does Ammonia Get Into Drinking Water?
- 📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Ammonia in Drinking Water?
- 🔎 How Can I Tell if Ammonia is in My Drinking Water?
- 👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Ammonia in Drinking Water?
- ⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Ammonia?
- 📝 Where Can I Get More Information?
❔ What is Ammonia?
💡 Ammonia is a biologically active gaseous compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. This pungent, water-soluble gas is found in most surface water and groundwater sources and is a product of nitrogenous organic matter degradation.
Ammonia produces a weak base when it reacts with water (NH4OH ––> NH4+ + OH–). “Ammonia” refers to two nitrogen species – the ionized ammonium ion (NH4+) and the un-ionized ammonia (NH3) – which are in equilibrium in water.
Most ammonia tests measure water’s total ammonia. Ammonia’s toxicity primarily occurs due to the un-ionized ammonia, rather than the ionized form. Generally, the higher the water pH, the higher the likelihood of greater toxicity.
|In Water As||pH dependent: NH4+; NH3|
Fertilizers, wastes & natural processes
Contaminant Levels (SMCLs)
|No action levels for EPA and WHO guidelines|
|Potential Health Risks||None Proposed for Human|
Zeolite Ion Exchange
Sodium Alumino silicate Zeolites
🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Ammonia?
Low levels of ammonia in tap water aren’t known to have any health effects (although they may still affect water quality and taste).
Drinking extremely high levels of ammonia over a prolonged period may lead to ammonia poisoning, which often presents the following symptoms:
- Chest Pain
- Severe Stomach Pain
- Throat Pain
- Tearing and temporary blindness
- Swelling of the lips
- Shock and collapse
- Weak, rapid pulse
- Difficulty walking
- Lack of coordination
🚰 How Does Ammonia Get Into Drinking Water?
Ammonia occurs naturally in the environment and is produced when organic matter degrades. Ammonia in water, or aqueous ammonia, commonly occurs when ammonia in the ground dissolves into water.
Industrial discharge from facilities using aqueous ammonia, ammonia gas, or any other form of ammonium ions can also cause ammonia to travel into surface waters and groundwater through runoff and soil seepage.
Finally, ammonia in water may be due to treatment methods used by municipal water suppliers. Ammonia is used in combination with chlorine in large-scale water treatment to prolong chlorine’s effectiveness and enhance chloramine formation. Using both chlorine and ammonia to disinfect water also greatly reduces the concentration of cancerous chlorine byproducts.
📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Ammonia in Drinking Water?
Water treatment facilities should monitor levels of ammonia in drinking water – but there are no legal enforcements or regulations for this colorless gas.
At levels typically found in drinking water, ammonia isn’t considered toxic to humans. For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) haven’t set an upper limit for ammonia that all states should adhere to. However, most states have their own local environmental limits, ranging from 0.25 to 32.5 milligrams per liter.
Because there are no nationally recognized action levels or guidelines for ammonia, different regions have different rules for monitoring this gas. View your Water Quality Report or contact your local water treatment facility to learn more about how ammonia is monitored in your drinking water.
Note that the EPA does have a water quality recommendation (17 mg/L) for the total ammonia nitrogen in water, but this is designed to protect freshwater organisms and aquatic life from the potential effects of ammonia.
🔎 How Can I Tell if Ammonia is in My Drinking Water?
Ammonia in water sometimes has an unpleasant taste that people describe as “bitter” or “sour”. Ammonia may also have an acrid smell.
However, you may not be able to tell by tasting or smelling your water whether it contains ammonia. Low ammonia levels don’t produce a guaranteed ammonia smell or taste, and even at higher levels, the taste or smell may blend in with the taste and smell of chlorine and other contaminants.
You can check your annual Water Quality Report to find out whether your water is disinfected with chloramine or chlorine. If your municipality uses chloramine disinfection, your water contains ammonia. If your water is disinfected with chlorine, it may still contain ammonia from other sources.
The only way to know for sure whether your water contains ammonia, and how much ammonia is present, is to conduct an ammonia test.
A certified laboratory test is the most thorough, accurate way to measure your water’s ammonia concentrations. Consider buying a test package that will indicate your overall water quality and detect a range of contaminants that are commonly present alongside ammonia.
👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Ammonia in Drinking Water?
Boiling your water won’t remove ammonia, so the best way to protect your family from this gas is to use a water filtration system to treat your home’s water supply.
Most water filters aren’t capable of removing even one of the two forms of ammonia, so it’s important to choose a water filter that’s capable of removing dissolved gases.
Reverse Osmosis is the most effective filtration method that exists today. RO can remove virtually all total dissolved solids, including dissolved gases such as toxic ammonia. A reverse osmosis system is typically installed as a countertop or under-sink unit, and uses several filtration stages, including an RO membrane, to trap contaminants of all sizes.
👉 Check out the Top 6 Reverse Osmosis Systems Worth Buying in 2023
Ion exchange is another option for ammonia removal. This method is often used in wastewater treatment facilities to remove ammonia and organic pollutants from water, but ion exchange is less commonly used for ammonia removal in at-home applications.
Distillation is a highly effective purification process that removes more than 99.99% of contaminants from water, including ammonia. A distiller boils water until it evaporates, then transports the water vapor to a separate container, where it condenses back into water droplets. Distillation technology removes more than 90% of ammonia.
⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Ammonia?
You may also be exposed to ammonia by:
- Inhaling ammonia vapors from cleaning products containing this gas
- Inhaling ammonia in the air (accidentally released from farms, or industrial or commercial locations)
- Working in an industry that uses ammonia, such as the industrial, mining, and agricultural sectors