What Is Water Treatment?

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Access to clean water is essential to daily life, and is considered by many to be the most important resource for sustaining ecosystems and our way of life. The ability to trust that the water we drink, bathe with and cook with is clean and safe is a privilege not available to billions of people around the world.

As seen in the Flint, Michigan water crisis, where lead leaching into drinking water exposed residents in thousands of homes to possible lead poisoning, unclean water can have terrible and long-lasting effects. What water treatment is to a community goes far beyond a need or service: Knowing our water is treated allows us to trust our resources and feel safe in our homes.

The many processes of water treatment are vital to every communities’ health, success and development. The opportunity and responsibility to oversee the proper treatment of a community’s water falls to occupational safety experts. After earning a degree in occupational safety, graduates work to ensure that these essential systems are operating at an optimal level and providing safe, clean drinking water to their communities.

Water Treatment Definition

Clean water is instrumental in our everyday lives, and it is also at the heart of countless industries across the United States. The United States uses an incredible 322 billion gallons of water per day, with the average American using 82 gallons per day at home, according to a 2015 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Professionals involved in treating water to provide clean water to a community need extensive training, and they are in increasing demand to meet a growing population. So what is water treatment? Simply put, it’s the process of turning contaminated water into clean, potable water that is safe for public use.

Water treatment can be broken down into a series of steps:

  • Coagulation: The addition of positively charged chemicals to water to neutralize negatively charged particles such as dirt or other dissolved particles
  • Flocculation: The gentle mixing of water to create flocs, which are larger particles that are easier to filter
  • Sedimentation: The process of separating solids from water, allowing larger particles including flocs or other solids to settle to the bottom
  • Filtration: The process of passing clean water through filters such as gravel or activated charcoal to remove dissolved particles such as bacteria, germs, viruses, dust or chemicals
  • Disinfection: The addition of chemical disinfectants such as chlorine to keep water safe by killing any remaining harmful bacteria

From one community to the next, the challenges facing occupational safety and water treatment specialists can be very different. Factors such as population size and varying local contaminants can affect how much water and which technologies are required to satisfy the needs of the population.

Additionally, the type of source water, such as rivers, lakes, groundwater, reservoirs or streams, varies broadly from one location to the next, changing the collection and treatment process. With an advanced education and hands-on experience, water treatment specialists are able to build knowledge specific to their area and its needs, innovating and tailoring strategies for success.

Water Treatment Technologies

The demand for clean water continues to rise, and the technology behind water treatment techniques are constantly evolving. With a variety of obstacles and challenges facing different communities, water treatment specialists must be able to adapt their strategies to fit the situation, optimizing the available technology to treat the water in their community.

The following are some common technologies used in water treatment.

Granular Activated Carbon

Granular activated carbon (GAC) is a porous absorption media that is manufactured for the filtration of water. Incredibly efficient in removing harmful contaminants, natural organic matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as well as compounds that create foul odors or tastes in water, GAC is versatile in filtering out a variety of unwanted particles. One of the main downsides of GACs is that they need to be replaced, a process that can be hazardous.

Packed Tower Aeration

What water treatment is designed to do is to remove harmful chemicals or particles such as VOCs from water, and this can be done in a variety of ways. In the case of packed tower aeration, the process transfers contaminants from the water to the air. Packed tower aeration is popular because it has proven to be efficient at removing incredibly harmful or volatile contaminants. Unlike with other technologies, however, local regulations may require air pollution control devices be used with packed tower aeration that raise its overall cost.

Anion Exchange

Anion exchange is a process used to remove dangerous negatively charged ions, such as arsenic, sulfates and chromium-6, by replacing them with other harmless negatively charged ions. Done by passing water through a synthetic resin that can be regenerated when the capacity of the resin is exhausted, anion exchange is an efficient and effective water treatment method. Unfortunately, disposal of the waste stream can be difficult, and the treatment can lower the pH of treated water, requiring post-treatments for corrosion.

Biological Treatment

Unlike other treatments that involve manufacturing, biological treatment uses indigenous bacteria to filter water. As water flows through a basin called a bioreactor, bacteria reacts with an electron donor, nutrients and other contaminants to reduce the contaminants in the water.

By destroying contaminants as opposed to filtering them into a waste stream, biological treatment can be safer than other water treatments and creates less harmful byproducts. However, the bioreactors themselves must be properly disposed of, and biological treatment requires post-treatment processes to finish cleaning the water.


Nanofiltration, also known as reverse osmosis, is a process that physically removes contaminants from water by forcing it through semipermeable membranes to separate clean water from the water with larger undesirable contaminants. Efficient at removing a variety of contaminants, nanofiltration is useful for areas that need to remove multiple types of harmful particles as opposed to a specific contaminant.

While effective at removing contaminants, less water makes its way through the filters than with other water treatment processes, making it less ideal for areas dealing with water scarcity. To reduce waste by treating the water that would otherwise be discarded, nanofiltration requires additional processes that can be costly.

The Challenges of Water Treatment

Providing safe and reliable water treatment to a community can be challenging. Obstacles including antiquated facilities that need to be repaired or updated, growing populations that require greater access to clean water, increased urbanization and complex pollutants in filtration can all be roadblocks to the proper water treatment process.

Pursuing a degree in occupational safety can prepare individuals to create plans and strategies to deal with these challenges. The obstacles water treatment professionals face are likely to change over time. But with the proper training, occupational safety experts will be able to lead the innovations of the future and help deliver safe, clean water to communities.

Build a Safer, Healthier Community

The health, success and development of our communities relies on our ability to trust that the essential resources we use every day are safe. What water treatment is to our society goes far beyond the processes and technologies. It is the foundation of a brighter future. Clean water is considered our most important resource because it is the one we cannot live without; we drink it, grow plants with it and cook with it, and our society relies on it to survive every day.

Pursuing a degree such as Eastern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety allows future occupational safety professionals to build the knowledge and skills they need to pursue a fulfilling role in the field and ensure the health and safety of their communities.

With its fully online program, allowing you to remain active as a safety professional while studying, and access to internships and career development programs, an education from Eastern Kentucky University is designed to help you succeed. Discover how you can make a difference as an occupational safety professional.

Recommended Readings

8 Environmental Health and Safety Careers You Should Consider

Bridging the Generation Gap in Workplace Safety Culture

How to Conduct a Job Hazard Analysis


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Water Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Water Treatment

Great Lakes Now, “Seven Years On: The Flint Water Crisis Has Yet to Conclude”

Healing Waters International, “Why Is Clean Water Important to Communities?”

United States Environmental Protection Agency, Basic Information About Source Water Protection

United States Environmental Protection Agency, Overview of Drinking Water Treatment Technologies

United States Environmental Protection Agency, Statistics and Facts

United States Geological Survey, Total Water Use in the United States

Veolia, “Modern Water and Industrial Wastewater Treatment Challenges: The Case for Operational Partnerships”