Foaming agents or surfactants in drinking water may be considered like "detergents" in the water that cause a foam to be created. These agents can be found in household detergents, consumer products, domestic sewage, pesticides, drilling fluids, and some industrial discharges. There are three types of surfactants: nonionic, anionic, or cationic. The most commonly tested are the anionic surfactants. These are also known as methylene blue active substances (MBAS) and the test is sometimes called the MBAS test.
Foaming agents in water can cause the water to create a foam when aerated. Foaming agents can impart a bitter, perfume-like, oily, and fishy taste to the water and can cause the water to have an odor and appear cloudy.
Foaming agents are regulated as secondary drinking water standards because of the aesthetic and technical problems that can be created if they are present. These conditions typically occur when the level of the foaming agent is over 1 mg/L. Very high dosages, i.e., over 50 mg/L, can cause gastrointestinal problems.
The secondary drinking water standard for foaming agents is 0.5 mg/L.
If you are having a problem with foaming agents, it is critical to identify the potential source of the foaming agents, since different sources use different types of foaming agents and the standard test for anionic surfactants may not be suitable. If you believe the source is related to a domestic wastewater source, such as: a septic system, sewer main, wastewater discharge, or standard agricultural discharge, the MBAS test would be a great first step, but you should also test for bacterial contamination and nitrogen compounds. In oil and natural gas development, the surfactants are not always anionic and in one case the surfactant was known as "F-485" and a lubricant Rock Drill Oil 150" (MSDS Surfactant, MSDS Lubricant - "Our Sister Blog Site - www.CarbonWaters.org" (Story). The MSDS for the Surfactant indicated the active ingredients were sec-PROPYL ALCOHOL, ISOPROPANOL, PROPAN-2-OL, IPA – ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL, therefore, we recommended testing for methylene blue activated substances (MBAS), isopropanol (IPA) and acetone. As previously stated - different types of surfactants are used in herbicides and pesticides and other chemical applicants so it is important to know the common name, trade name, and application of the product of concern. In some cases, it is necessary to review the MSDS for the product and specific chemical information (CAS #).
Note - MSDS - means Material Safety Data Sheet and CAS Number- means the Chemical Abstracts Service Registry Number for a specific ingredient.
Level 1 Testing is done with simple observations that an individual can make with their own senses such as sight, smell, and taste. These observations can be readily apparent or can be observed as they change over time. In addition, accessible related information about the home can also be used to narrow down the cause of your water issues.
Foaming agents in the water can cause the water when shaken or mixed to create "foam" or suds or frothing when the concentration is over 1 mg/L. Surfactants have also been associated with "soapy" taste, and an oily, fishy, or perfume-like smell. If the surfactant is ingested at levels of 50 mg/L or more, this has been associated with diarrhea and gastrointestinal issues. The presence of foam and surfactants may suggest the presence of contamination from sewage but also can be associated with industrial discharges and agricultural activities.
As previously mentioned, the water will likely create a foam or have a soapy taste and a strange smell. In some cases, elevated surfactants are associated with high Total Dissolved Solids, high Nitrate, and Bacterial contamination.
Level 2 Testing is Do-It-Yourself testing that can be done in your own home using a Testing Kit. After you’ve done Level 1 Testing, Level 2 Testing can confirm if your observations are correct. If your test results reveal the presence of a contaminant that is cause for concern, you can either proceed to determine the best treatment (see below) or continue to Level 3 Testing.
At this time, we are not familiar with a low-cost home screening test specific for surfactants. A quick DIY approach would be to fill a clean glass and stir, shake, or mix the water. If you see foam or what appears to be soap suds, or the water looks or smells like soapy water, you may have a problem with surfactants. High levels of surfactants can be associated with gastrointestinal problems. We would suggest or recommend the following: Order the Test Assured In-Home Kit and check for Bacteria, Pesticides, Nitrates, and general water quality and maybe consider buying at least one of the field detergent test kits from Amazon from CHEMetrics or LaMotte. We have used both the CHEMetrics and LaMotte Detergent Test Kits in our homeowner outreach and education programs on well water, drinking water, septic systems, and stream-water-monitoring educational programs.
Level 3 Testing is done through an accredited Water Testing Laboratory. With Level 3 Testing, you can order a testing kit that is used to prepare your sample and submit it to the lab. By utilizing a lab, you have the assurance that a certified water expert had analyzed your water sample. If your test results reveal the presence of a contaminant that is cause for concern, you can either proceed to determine the best treatment options (see below) or continue to Level 4 Testing - Certified Testing.
Order a Neighborhood Environmental Report to learn about potential hazards in your community.
A Level 4 Certified Test Test uses chain-of-custody with a water professional coming to your home to prepare the water sample and then works with an accredited laboratory in order to certify your test results. This type of testing not only gives you the highest level of assurance in the accuracy of your test results, but can also be used as a document in legal cases. For Baseline Testing, we recommend that you use Certified Testing.
If you need certified testing for foaming agents and related compounds, it would be advisable to test for a broader range of primary and secondary drinking water parameters including trace metals and general water quality. If you need help with finding a certified laboratory, please contact our team.