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Contamination of Potable Water by Phenol from a Solar Water Tank Liner -- Georgia

In July 1980, when the kitchen facility of a Georgia hospital was relocated, employees and patients complained of an intermittent foul taste and odor in food and water, variously described as resembling iodine or chlorine. The problem was worse in the early morning but returned throughout the day. Originally attributed to "new plumbing," corrective measures, including hyperchlorination, failed. Investigation revealed that the phenolic resin liner of the solar water tank had been improperly cured, and phenolic compounds were identified in the water.

Because many employees and patients developed nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea, an infectious etiology was suspected. Urine was collected for determination of phenol; none was detected by the ferric chloride method, and definite association could not be established. Routine bacteriologic and viral cultures of the water were negative. Water samples from the system were assayed by gas chromatography mass spectrophotometry. Qualitative analysis of the storage-tank water disclosed phenol, o, m, or p-t-butyl phenol 4-chlorophenol, 2-cyclohexene-1-ol, and 2-cyclohexene-1-one. Quantitative analysis revealed a concentration of 0.35 mg/l of phenol.

The solar-heated water system had been installed several months earlier. When initially connected, the water had been muddy despite prolonged flushing. When inspected during the investigation, the 9,000-gallon storage tank disclosed several large, rusted areas and considerable muddy sediment in the inferior free space. The tank was abraded to the steel shell and recoated with protective phenolic resin; the recoating resin had been improperly cured at 21.1 C (70 F) instead of 149 C (300 F). Reported by RC Trincher, MD, JP Rissing, MD, Veterans Administration Medical Center and Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, Georgia.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Phenolic resins, which commonly line water storage tanks, result from combining phenols and formaldehyde; polymerization is achieved by catalysts. Catalyst, pH, phenol/formaldehyde ratio, temperature, and duration of reaction primarily determine resulting resin characteristics. Nonpolymerized components, including phenols, are free to disassociate after application. Resin selection depends on the intended use, including temperature and potability of stored water. The resin selected in this case was unsuitable for potable water when cured at 21.1 C (70 F) because leached phenolic compounds cause a foul taste and odor. The phenolic concentrations decrease with time; however, halides, including chlorine, react strongly with phenol. Increased chlorine concentrations result in increased odor and taste in the water (1,2).

Phenol is readily absorbed through the skin, mucous membranes, and gastrointestinal tract and is rapidly excreted by the kidneys. Oral administration of undiluted phenol can cause necrosis and hemorrhage of mucous membranes.

Systemic poisoning is manifested by headache, dizziness, tinnitus, vertigo, tremors, twitchings, and convulsions (3). In subacute poisonings, anorexia, nausea, and vomiting may occur. Lethal dosage ranges from 80 mg/kg to 1,300 mg/kg.

Based on chronic toxicity data on animals, ambient water criteria proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1979 are 3.4 mg/l, allowing for an approximate 7 mg/day intake. In areas of chlorination, a level of 0.001 mg/l is suggested, based on the objectionable taste and odor produced by chlorinated phenols, which have a taste threshold of 0.005 mg/l (2).

Only one incidence of phenol contamination of a water-supply system has been reported previously (4). This involved spillage of 10,000 gallons of phenol, which contaminated the wells of approximately 25 households. Household members subsequently developed diarrhea, mouth sores, dark urine, and burning mouth.


  1. Kirk RE, Othmer DF. Kirk-Othmer encyclopedia of chemical technology. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1978; 15:176-94.

  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Phenol: hazard profile. Cincinnati, Ohio.

  3. von Oettingen WF. Phenol and its derivatives: the relation between their chemical constitution and their effect on the organism. National Institutes of Health Bulletin No. 190, 1949;27-9, 44-7.

  4. Baker EL, Landrigan PJ, Bertozzi PE, Field PH, Basteyns BJ, Skinner HG. Phenol poisoning due to contaminated drinking water. Arch Environ Health 1978; 33:89-94.

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