Barium is a naturally occurring metal that has potential health effects in drinking water. This glossary explains everything you need to know about barium in water supplies, including how it gets there, its potential health effects, and how to remove it.
Table of Contents
- ❔ What is Barium?
- 🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Barium?
- 🚰 How Does Barium Get Into Drinking Water?
- 📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Barium in Drinking Water?
- 🔎 How Can I Tell if Barium is in My Drinking Water?
- 👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Barium in Drinking Water?
- ⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Barium?
- 📝 Where Can I Get More Information?
❔ What is Barium?
💡 Barium is a type of earth metal that’s found naturally in mineral deposits. There are two common barium compounds: barium sulfate and barium carbonate. It’s estimated that barium compounds make up about 0.05% of the earth’s crust.
Barium is a highly reactive metal, meaning that it never occurs alone in nature – it’s usually found combined with other elements. Barium is recognized as an element on the Periodic Table with the symbol: “Ba”.
Pure barium, a silvery-white metal, can only be obtained by separating barium from compounds that occur naturally. Pure barium is often used to make components in machinery, such as spark plugs and bearings.
When combined with other elements, barium has an even greater range of uses, in glassmaking, printer paint, creating rubber, X-rays, poisons, and fireworks. Despite its usefulness across a range of sectors, barium can still be a nuisance – and dangerous – in water.
|In Water As||Ba2+|
|Sources||Surface runoff and groundwater seepage
Manufacturing motor vehicle parts, smelting copper
Contaminant Levels (MCLs)
|US EPA: 2.0 mg/L ; 2.0 mg/L (MCLG)
WHO Guideline: 0.7 mg/L
Health Canada: 1.0 mg/L (MAC)
EWG: 0.7 mg/L
|Potential Health Risks||Changes in heart rhythm
Increased blood pressure
Possible liver, kidney, spleen and heart damage
Cation or Ion exchange
🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Barium?
Barium’s solubility affects the health risks posed by the compound. Highly water-soluble barium compounds have more serious health risks than barium compounds with a low water solubility. The more acidic the water (the lower its pH), the more soluble the barium.
Barium compounds with poor water solubility, which are considered low-risk in water, are barium carbonate and barium sulfate. The highly-soluble barium compounds that pose the greatest health risks are barium chloride, barium nitrate, barium acetate, barium cyanide, barium oxide, and barium hydroxide (caused by decomposing barium sulfide).
According to the Water Quality Association (WQA), barium exposure is known to have the following human health effects:
- Increased blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Breathing problems
- Irregular or altered heart rhythm
- Brain swelling
- Stomach irritation
- Liver, kidney, spleen and heart damage
Different barium compounds have their own specific health effects. Low levels of certain barium compounds may have no effects on public health whatsoever. The type of barium, how well these compounds dissolve in water, and the subsequent barium concentrations found in water determine the health effects you’ll experience.
🚰 How Does Barium Get Into Drinking Water?
Barium commonly gets into drinking water from surface runoff and groundwater seepage. According to an EPA document, barium is found in low levels in most groundwater and surface water sources, typically less than 0.34 mg/L.
We know now that barium occurs naturally and is an alkaline earth metal. When surface water flows past, or seeps through, rocks containing barium, some of the barium is dissolved in the water.
The water’s barium compounds depend on the types of barium found in the rocks (e.g. barium chloride is more water soluble and more dangerous than barium carbonate), and the water’s alkalinity (decreasing pH increases the potential for barium contamination).
Barium may also pollute the air, water, and land in the environment from coal waste, high-octane fuels, landfill leachate, and some de-icing products. From here, barium may enter drinking water sources through surface runoff. Industrial barium pollution is far less likely than the natural release of barium from rocks.
📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Barium in Drinking Water?
Yes, water treatment facilities monitor barium levels and use various treatment technologies to reduce or remove barium compounds.
Public water facilities are legally obliged to test for, and treat, contaminants according to guidelines produced by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has classified barium as one of the primary contaminants due to its association with a potential health concern.
📌 The EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level (or maximum acceptable concentration) for barium in water is 2.0 mg/L (or PPM). The EPA also has a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal – the maximum level of a contaminant where there is no known risk to health – of 2.0 mg/L for barium.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has a slightly lower health guideline of 0.7 mg/L (or PPM) for barium in water. Health Canada also has its own Maximum Acceptable Concentration for barium of 0.1 mg/L.
According to the EPA’s guidelines, public water facilities in the US must all treat their water to reduce barium and other contaminants, and provide proof of treatment whenever the EPA requests data. This should, in theory, mean that your water contains “safe” levels of barium – but it doesn’t mean that your water is entirely barium-free.
🔎 How Can I Tell if Barium is in My Drinking Water?
Barium is a tasteless, odorless metal that doesn’t change the color or appearance of water. Some of the indicators of potential barium contamination are:
- High water hardness, suggesting high mineral absorption from rocks in your region
- Exhibiting symptoms that are associated with drinking barium in water
- Living in a region that is known to have historic or current industrial barium use and/or pollution
However, none of the above indicators tell you for definite that your water is polluted with barium. The only way to know for sure whether or not your drinking water contains this metal is to get a water sample tested.
Most at-home water test kits don’t detect barium. A professional laboratory test will give you the most accurate and detailed test results for this metal. Laboratory testing will tell you exactly how much barium your water contains, and what types. Many tests also detect other metals that are commonly found alongside barium – it just depends on what you pay for.
👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Barium in Drinking Water?
In most cases, it’s impossible to prevent your water from becoming contaminated with barium. But if your water contains barium and you’re unhappy with how it’s treated by your local facility, you can use your own treatment technology to remove this metal at home.
Many water treatment systems last for up to a decade with regular maintenance and filter changes, so they’re a good long-term solution against barium in your water supply.
Some of the best methods of removing barium are:
- Distillation – This involves boiling water until it evaporates, leaving barium and other primary and secondary contaminants in the boiling chamber. Distillation-treated water is almost entirely pure, so it’s an ideal treatment method for removing virtually all barium and other impurities.
- Reverse Osmosis – This process sends water through several treatment filters and a semipermeable membrane, which remove hundreds of total dissolved solids, including almost 100% barium. Most reverse osmosis units are designed for point-of-use applications, such as underneath a kitchen sink.
- Cation or ion exchange – This involves exchanging barium and other heavy metals with ions in a resin, then washing the barium out of the resin during regeneration. Cation exchange is commonly used in wastewater treatment, but it can also be used as an at-home water treatment option.
⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Barium?
Aside from consuming barium in your drinking water, there are other ways that you may be exposed to this divalent cation:
- Through skin contact, if you touch something made from barium
- By breathing particles of barium in the air (especially likely in some industrial environments)
- By eating food containing barium
You may or may not be harmed from your exposure to barium. The health effects of this metal depend on factors including how much barium you’re exposed to, and for how long, as well as how you come in contact with the barium.
📝 Where Can I Get More Information?
You can find more information about barium in drinking water on the following sites:
- WQA: Barium
- Health Canada: Barium in Drinking Water
- Centers for Disease Control: Medical Management Guidelines for Barium
- EPA: Barium Fact Sheet