Water Sanitation Health

Aluminium in drinking-water

Background document for development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality

General description


Aluminium is the most abundant metallic element and constitutes about 8% of the Earth's crust. It occurs naturally in the environment as silicates, oxides, and hydroxides, combined with other elements, such as sodium and fluoride, and as complexes with organic matter.

CompoundCAS no.Molecular formula
Aluminium chloride7446-70-0AlCl3
Aluminium hydroxide21645-51-2Al(OH)3
Aluminium oxide1344-28-1Al2O3
Aluminium sulfate10043-01-3Al2(SO4)3

Physicochemical properties (Lide, 1993)

Melting point (°C)6601903002072770 (d)
Boiling point (°C)2467262 (d)-2980-
Density at 20°C (g/cm3)2.702.442.423.972.71
Water solubility (g/litre)(i)69.9(i)(i)31.3 at 0°C

Organoleptic properties

Use of aluminium salts as coagulants in water treatment may lead to increased concentrations of aluminium in finished water. Where residual concentrations are high, aluminium may be deposited in the distribution system. Disturbance of the deposits by change in flow rate may increase aluminium levels at the tap and lead to undesirable colour and turbidity (WHO, 1996). Concentrations of aluminium at which such problems may occur are highly dependent on a number of water quality parameters and operational factors at the water treatment plant.

Major uses

Aluminium metal is used as a structural material in the construction, automotive, and aircraft industries, in the production of metal alloys, in the electric industry, in cooking utensils, and in food packaging. Aluminium compounds are used as antacids, antiperspirants, and food additives (ATSDR, 1992). Aluminium salts are also widely used in water treatment as coagulants to reduce organic matter, colour, turbidity, and microorganism levels. The process usually consists of addition of an aluminium salt (often sulfate) at optimum pH and dosage, followed by flocculation, sedimentation, and filtration (Health Canada, 1993).

Environmental fate

Aluminium is released to the environment mainly by natural processes. Several factors influence aluminium mobility and subsequent transport within the environment. These include chemical speciation, hydrological flow paths, soil–water interactions, and the composition of the underlying geological materials. Acid environments caused by acid mine drainage or acid rain can cause an increase in the dissolved aluminium content of the surrounding waters (ATSDR, 1992; WHO, 1997).

Aluminium can occur in a number of different forms in water. It can form monomeric and polymeric hydroxy species, colloidal polymeric solutions and gels, and precipitates, all based on aquated positive ions or hydroxylated aluminates. In addition, it can form complexes with various organic compounds (e.g. humic or fulvic acids) and inorganic ligands (e.g. fluoride, chloride, and sulfate), most but not all of which are soluble. The chemistry of aluminium in water is complex, and many chemical parameters, including pH, determine which aluminium species are present in aqueous solutions. In pure water, aluminium has a minimum solubility in the pH range 5.5–6.0; concentrations of total dissolved aluminium increase at higher and lower pH values (CCME, 1988; ISO, 1994).