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Heavy metals in raw and drinking water

Assesment about the punctual presence of heavy metals in raw and drinking water in a population of Norte de Santander Colombia

Raquel Villamizar

An assessment about the punctual presence of heavy metals such as Mercury, Iron and Lead in drinking water has been conducted during this research. The testing process was carried out in two different purification plants located in the Department Norte de Santander, Colombia.

In developing countries, discharges of domestic and industrial waste joined to waste produced by agricultural practices are very frequent and there is poor regulation in this regard. This situation is causing pollution of water bodies due to of the presence of considerable quantities of chemical and biological elements that are not always removed through purification processes.

In Colombia there are an estimated of at least 737,000 bodies of water, including rivers, creeks, streams and lagoons but most of them are currently polluted. A research reported by B.L Tejeda and colleagues showed that Magdalena River, is one of the most important hydrological sources in the country and the water supply of 38 million habitants providing them a considerable quantity of nourishment (60% of the fishing product of the country) but it is also highly polluted. The river presents a Pb content of 12.1 mg/g whereas Hg content is 0.04mg/g.  This pollution level is superior   to that required by the current regulations. The authors attribute these levels of metals mainly  to different activities such as illegal mining or inadequate agricultural practices [1].

In 2015, Gonzalez E and colleagues launched of a book related to the problem of mercury pollution in Colombia. The authors focus on this metal taking into account that it is one of the materials that present the greatest impact on ecosystems. In our county, this material has reached an alarming  concentration in the air, water and even in people (i.e. skin, hair, urine, blood) engaged in small and medium gold-bearing mining. The constant exposure to Hg by means of inhalation or drinking polluted water could provoke several damages to the nervous and immune systems, specially liver and brain [2-3].

In the department of Norte de Santander, the most important hydrological source is the Pamplonita River, which starts near the city of Pamplona in Fontibón moor and counts with an average flow of 15 m3/s2. There are two conventional treatment plants in this area, which are lock on this hydrological source and undertake the water to do the purification process.  Around 57,393 people are supplied with this water. Moreover, from where the river starts to where the treatment plants are located, there is a distance of approximately 4.5 km.  During this round the water gets contact with all the waste residues produced by the anthropogenic activities of people who inhabit the area, including domestic, agricultural and cattle industry activities. That is the reason why this research was conducted, to determine the punctual presence of heavy metals (i.e. Hg, Fe and Pb) in raw and drinkable water that supply a population in Norte de Santander, Colombia.

To carry out a punctual diagnosis of Mercury (Hg), iron (Fe) and Lead (Pb) a sample of about 3Lt of water from two different local in the region was taken.The samples were labeled, freezing and sent for analysis to the Center of Environmental Research, Water and Soil (CEIAM) at the Industrial University of Santander, Bucaramanga.

Hg determination was carried out only on raw water from two purification plants and analyzed using Standard Methods (SM 3114 C and 3112 B). The analysis of Fe and Pb were applied to water in three different phases of the purification process (Figure 1).  Atomic absorption techniques, hydride generation by employing Standard Methods (3114 C, 3112 B, 3030 E and 3111 B) were used.


Figure 1. Schematic representation of the different phases of purification carried out in the plants under study.

Results and Discussion

Mercury levels found in raw water, at the capture station of the two analyzed purification plants were inferior to 0.00758 mg/L of water. These values were lower compared to those reported on Magdalena River (0.04 mg), however water from  Pamplonita River oversteps almost seven times the acceptable levels of the regulation (0,001 mg/L – Resolution 2115, 2007 [4]).  Lead levels in all phases of purification were inferior to 0,21 mg/L of water. Although this value is inferior to the one reported in Magdalena River (12,1 mg) it also oversteps the acceptable levels of the regulation (0,001 mg/L –Resolution 2115, 2007).

It is important to highlight that there are not lead casting mines close to the analyzed zone in the Pamplona River.  However, the presence of this metal in water could be the result of waste dragging produced by the use of agricultural fertilizers and used by people who live and work in that area.  It could also be the result of the presence of lead-soldered cans employed by inhabitants of the area to keep food fresh or, due to metal transport from the soil by hydric erosion processes. The main problems linked to this metal are caused by its absortion inside the digestive tract, lungs and skin leading to poisoning. Even, with the lowest concentrations and with no symptoms, lead presents deleterious effects on the brain, kidneys, nervous system and red blood cells.

Finally, the iron content  in the treatment plant 1 is inside the parameters of the required limit (0.3 mg/L), given that in all the cases it was inferior to 0.1 mg/L (Figure 2). Nevertheless, in the treatment plant 2 Fe levels in the storage phase was superior by 150% to the limits proposed by the standard. This phenomenon is attributed to fails within the employed materials, adduction systems and distribution networks that made easier the migration of this metal to water.


Figure 2. Content of Pb and Fe in three phases of water purification process in two treatment plants in Norte de Santander’s area.


Through this study it was possible to determine the punctual presence of heavy metals in the water submitted to capture, clarification and treatment in the two purification plants under research. In addition to this, it was found, that the purification process is not designed for the removal of heavy metals, as evidenced by the constant values of metals in the different analyzed phases. This creates the need of undertaking systematic monitoring of metals in raw and drinkable water in the region, as well as implementing methods based on the use of Bio-Nano-Technology that would help reduce levels of Pb in the two purification plants under study. Furthermore, there is a need to ask for the help of the municipal administration to improve the distribution systems of plant 2, so as to reduce Fe levels and thus ensure drinkable water access for all inhabitants of the region.


1] Tejeda, L., Fleal, R., Odigie, K., & Verbel, J. Environmental Pollution 212,  238-250 (2012).

[2] Guerrero, A., Verbela, J., & Marrugo, J.    Mutation Research 762,  24–29 (2014).

[3] Gonzalez, E., Marrugo, J., & Martínez, V. El Problema de Contaminación por Mercurio. Nanotecnología: Retos y Posibilidades para Medición y Remediación. (Red Nano Colombia, Bogotá)  2015, pp 202.

[4] Resolución 2115 de 2007. Quoted from : https://www.minambiente.gov.  co/images/GestionIntegraldelRecursoHidrico/pdf/Disponibilidad-del-recurso-hidrico/Decreto-1575-de-2007.pdf.   Date consulted: March 4  2016.


Raquel Villamizar Ph.D.

Universidad de Pamplona, Facultad de Ciencias Básicas, Km. 1 Vía Bucaramanga, Pamplona Norte de Santan-der Colombia. E-mail: raqvillamizar@unipamplona.edu.co

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2 responses to “Heavy metals in raw and drinking water”

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