Manganese and Iron In Drinking Water
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Iron and manganese are non-hazardous elements that can be a nuisance in a water supply. Iron and manganese are chemically similar and cause similar problems. Iron is the most frequent of the two contaminants in water supplies ; manganese is typically found in iron-bearing water.  Iron and manganese can stain laundry, plates, and fixtures.

Sources of Iron and Manganese in Drinking Water

Iron and manganese are common metallic elements found in the earth's crust. Water percolating through soil and rock can dissolve minerals containing iron and manganese and hold them in solution. Occasionally, iron pipes also may be a source of iron in water.

Indications of Iron and Manganese

In deep wells, where oxygen content is low, the iron/manganese-bearing water is clear and colorless (the iron and manganese are dissolved). Water from the tap may be clear, but when exposed to air, iron and manganese are oxidized and change from colorless, dissolved forms to colored, solid forms.

Oxidation of dissolved iron particles in water changes the iron to white, then yellow and finally to red-brown solid particles that settle out of the water. Iron that does not form particles large enough to settle out and that remains suspended (colloidal iron) leaves the water with a red tint.  Manganese usually is dissolved in water, although some shallow wells contain colloidal manganese (black tint).  These sediments are responsible for the staining properties of water containing high concentrations of iron and manganese. These precipitates or sediments may be severe enough to plug water pipes.

Iron and manganese can affect the flavor and color of food and water. They may react with tannins in coffee, tea and some alcoholic beverages to produce a black sludge, which affects both taste and appearance. Manganese is objectionable in water even when present in smaller concentrations than iron.

Iron will cause reddish-brown staining of laundry, porcelain, dishes, utensils and even glassware. Manganese acts in a similar way but causes a brownish-black stain. Soaps and detergents do not remove these stains, and use of chlorine bleach and alkaline builders (such as sodium and carbonate) may intensify the stains.

Iron and manganese deposits will build up in pipelines, pressure tanks, water heaters and water softeners. This reduces the available quantity and pressure of the water supply. Iron and manganese accumulations become an economic problem when water supply or water softening equipment must be replaced. There also are associated increases in energy costs from pumping water through constricted pipes or heating water with heating rods coated with iron or manganese mineral deposits.

A problem that frequently results from iron or manganese in water is iron or manganese bacteria. These nonpathogenic (not health threatening) bacteria occur in soil, shallow aquifers and some surface waters. The bacteria feed on iron and manganese in water. These bacteria form red-brown (iron) or black-brown (manganese) slime in toilet tanks and can clog water systems.   If you are having problems with iron, manganese, and/or occasional sulfur odors we typically recommend water testing (Multiple Options).

Potential Health Effects

The regulations regarding iron and manganese in drinking water were established as secondary standards, which means the limits were set because of nuisance problems and aesthetic concerns.  It has come to my attention that a portion of the public may be suitable to Iron Overload  or Hemochromatosis.   The symptoms of  hemochromatosis vary and can include: chronic fatigue, arthritis, heart disease, cirrhosis, cancer, diabetes, thyroid disease, impotence, and sterility.  "Hereditary hemochromatosis is only one of several iron loading diseases. But its double gene frequency alone is 1 in 200 of the US population have the single gene expression.. It is the most common genetic disease, and tragically the most undiagnosed" (Source: Iron Overload Disease- Fact Sheet- see Link at Bottom of Webpage).  

" Heredity - Celtic heritage, ancestors from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, or Great Britain (England), then you are at high risk for carrying the HFE mutations for hereditary hemochromatosis (HH), also known as iron overload disease or iron storage disease." (Source: American Hemochromatosis Society-Fact Sheet- see Link at Bottom of Webpage).  New Bulletin On Iron Deficiency- Many of the symptoms of iron overload are the same as Iron Deficiency, including fatigue, weakness and lack of energy. However, people with hemochromatosis generally experience a darkening of skin color (often referred to as bronzing), while those suffering from iron deficiency Anemia will experience a pale skin color.

Water Testing

The method used to test water for iron and manganese depends on the form of the element. If water is clear when first drawn but red or black particles appear after the water sits in a glass, dissolved (ferrous) iron/manganese is present. If the water has a red tint with particles so small they cannot be detected nor do they settle out after a time, colloidal (ferric) iron is the problem.

Typically, laboratory tests are needed only to quantify the extent of iron and manganese contamination, but testing of additional water parameters such as pH, silica content, oxygen content, hardness and sulfur may be necessary to determine the most appropriate water treatment system.  The water testing is provided by  National Testing Laboratories or Directly by Mr. Brian Oram.

Interpreting Test Results

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for drinking water fall into two categories --- Primary Standards and Secondary Standards. Primary Standards are based on health considerations and are designed to protect people from three classes of pollutants: pathogens, radioactive elements and toxic chemicals.   Secondary Standards are based on taste, odor, color, corrosivity, foaming and staining properties of water. Iron and manganese are both classified under the Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) standards. The SMCL for iron in drinking water is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/l), sometimes expressed as 0.3 parts per million (ppm), and 0.05 mg/l (ppm) for manganese. Water with less than these concentrations should not have an unpleasant taste, odor, appearance or side effect caused by a secondary contaminant.   The new 2012 Private Well Owner User Manual is Available.


If excessive iron or manganese is present in your water supply, you have two basic options -- obtain an alternate water supply or use some type of treatment to remove the impurity. The need for an alternate water supply or impurity removal should be established before making an investment in treatment equipment or an alternate supply. Base the decision on a water analysis by a reputable laboratory. It may be possible to obtain a satisfactory alternate water supply by drilling a new well in a different location or a deeper well in a different aquifer.  Several methods of removing iron and manganese from water are available. The most appropriate method depends on many factors, including the concentration and form of iron/manganese in the water, if iron or manganese bacteria are present, and how much water you need to treat.

Generally speaking, there are five basic methods for treating water containing these contaminants. They are: (1) phosphate compounds ; (2) ion exchange water softeners; (3) oxidizing filters; (4) aeration (pressure type) followed by filtration ; and (5) ozone chemical oxidation followed by filtration.

These treatment techniques are effective in water that has an almost neutral pH (approximately 7.0). The phosphate compound treatment is an exception and is effective in the pH range of 5.0 to 8.0. Exceptions are noted for manganese removal.

Plumbing corrosion

Corroded pipes and equipment may cause reddish-brown particles in the water that, when drawn from the tap, will settle out as the water stands. This can indicate oxidized iron or, in some cases, it may only be iron corrosion particles. Raising the water's pH and using a sediment filter is the simplest solution to this problem.

Iron and manganese bacteria

The most common approach to control of iron and manganese bacteria is shock chlorination. Shock chlorination procedures are described in Shock Chlorination of Domestic Water Supplies. It is almost impossible to kill all the iron and manganese bacteria in your system. They will grow back eventually so be prepared to repeat the treatment from time to time. If bacteria regrowth is rapid, repeated shock chlorination becomes time consuming. Continuous application of low levels of chlorine may be less work and more effective. An automatic liquid chlorine injector pump or a dispenser that drops chlorine pellets into the well are common choices.  Chlorine rapidly changes dissolved iron into oxidized (colored) iron that will precipitate. A filter may be needed to remove oxidized iron if continuous chlorination is used to control iron bacteria.

Multistage treatment

If the water has high levels of iron and manganese and they are both the dissolved and solid forms, a multistage treatment operation is necessary. For example, a troublesome supply could be chlorinated to oxidize dissolved iron and kill iron bacteria, and filtered through a mechanical device to remove particles. This can be followed by activated carbon filtration to remove excess chlorine and a water softener for hardness control as well as removal of any residual, dissolved iron or manganese.  If a chemical oxidizer is used, it might be possible to treat hydrogen sulfide, iron and manganese contaminants at the same time.


Iron and manganese are common water contaminants that are not considered health hazards. Their presence in water results in staining as well as offensive tastes and appearances. Treatment of these elements depends on the form in which they occur in the untreated water and it is strongly recommended that your water be tested  prior to the purchase or installation of any treatment devices.  In some cases, it is necessary to conduct nuisance bacteria testing (see photos below), because of the presence of iron reducing bacteria.  Therefore, accurate testing is important before considering options and/or selecting treatment equipment. Often the treatment for iron and manganese is the same for hydrogen sulfide, allowing removal of all three contaminants in one process.

Under the Microscope

Newest Links:  
Guide to Iron Overload Disorders
Cooking with Less Iron
Bulletin On Iron Deficiency- NEW

Other Outside Links
Iron Overload Disease-
American Hemochromatosis Society -
Iron Overload Disorders

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Greensand Filtration System
Iron / Sulfide Treatment System
Under the Counter and Counter Top Filtration Systems
Ozone Water Treatment

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For More information about the Water Research Center, 
please contact:

 Attn: Mr. Brian Oram, Professional Geologist (PG)
Water Research Center
B.F. Environmental Consultants Inc.
15 Hillcrest Drive
Dallas, PA 1861

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