Iron Bacteria: Its Causes, Effects, and Solutions

Groundwater usually garners some of the characteristics of the soil and rock that surround it. Since iron is one of the most abundant minerals found at the earth’s very crust, it also comes with the water that flows underground that serves several purposes, such as human consumption. When water is mixed in with too much iron, a reddish-brown color grows present. This is the element that may stain our clothes, have our drinks tasting weird, and make the water unusable for its evident contamination. This common yet inadequately discussed problem is the presence of iron bacteria in water supplies.

Iron bacteria are small active organisms that naturally thrive in soil, shallow groundwater, and surface waters. These bacteria are a combination of iron and oxygen that form deposits of rust, which is a reddish and flaky coating of iron oxide, and moss, a slimy material that sticks the bacteria to good pipes and other fixtures.

These things occur due to oxidation, which is the loss of electrons during a reaction by a molecule, atom or ion once it is increased. One common example is rusting: this occurs when iron, oxygen and water combine, wherein iron loses its electrons to oxygen atoms. This leaves marks on affected metals and turns them into a reddish-brown color.

Types of Iron Bacteria

Several types of iron bacteria can be found in different places. These include different organisms that obtain carbon from carbon dioxide in the air and receive energy from dissolved iron and manganese.

Sphaerotilus natans is an aquatic periphyton organism that is correlated with the presence of polluted water. It is more commonly referred to as “sewage fungus”, or a mass of filamentous bacteria. This grows almost anywhere there is a flow of water and enough nutrients for bacteria to develop.

The presence of sewage fungus causes water oxygen levels to drastically plummet and may struggle with supporting invertebrates and fish that inhabit these bodies of water. This can only be redeemed when pollution has been broken down, diluted by freshwater or significantly cleared out.

The presence of sewage fungus quickly grows like a blanket covering the water within 2 days, and will only grow more concentrated when streams are lower.

Clonothrix is a category od chlamydobacteria that have organic sheaths covered in iron or manganese, that reproduce through chains, and are known to primarily affect waterworks and pipes.

Crenothrix polyspora, on the other hand, is a category of filamentous bacteria that uses the iron to metabolize and cause staining, which leaves a certain stain, taste, and odor in water systems that may reach its consumers.

Lastly, leptothrix is a category of Gram-negative bacteria that occur in stagnant or slow-flowing, neutral and mildly acidic fresh waters that have low concentrations of organic matter.

Presence of Iron Bacteria

While the bigger effects of iron bacteria presence are felt in the groundwater and other sources that provide the masses with water supply, it is also very much present in respective homes. Since any place that has water flowing is susceptible, it may be spotted in toilets, faucets, private wells, swimming pools, showers and the like.


These infestations may cause the development of odors and stains, the corrosion of plumbing equipment, reduction of good yields, and increase the chance of a sulfur bacteria infestation. The texture that it produces may range from being swampy, oily and musty, as it comes with the taste of cucumbers, vegetation or even the sewage. It also comes in a variety of colors ranging from yellow, orange, brown or oil-sheened water.

In extreme cases, iron bacteria can form an orange-brownish slime on water fixtures that may clog the use of water devices. The slime can quickly build up and crawl on faucet ends, laundry machines, and inside pipes and tanks where it may be hard to detect and get rid of. If left untreated, this may thicken over time and break of large masses of the fixtures, which may cause clogs and disruptions in specific systems.

Iron bacteria are not known to cause any diseases, but they can develop and create conditions where other organisms may grow and create diseases. The clogged areas may also affect the amount of water being produced by pipes.

Since it is hard to get rid of once present, the best is to prevent its initial occurrence. The best way to disinfect areas with a strong chlorine solution. Usual chemical disinfectants that are effective in getting rid of other problems may not be as successful for iron bacteria for several reasons.

For one, iron bacteria tend to build up a thick consistency, forming slime around bacterial cells, and some disinfectants fail to reach beyond surface cells. Chemical reactions occur slower at the cool temperatures that wells usually have, and the bacterial cell would need a far longer exposure to the chemical for it to be taken away. Even if the chlorine kills all the bacterial cells present in the water, those in the groundwater can remain present through pumping from a well.

A simpler method may be forcing down hot water or steam into the areas to disperse the slime and kill bacteria. Flushing large quantities of hot water into these areas have also worked in different instances.

Despite the unsightly color and foul taste and odor that it absorbs, iron bacteria poses no specific health risks. There are also no recorded health concerns when it comes to its presence in drinking water, but the presence of high levels of manganese is a different story.

Manganese in Drinking Water

While a specific amount of this mineral is essential in maintaining one’s health, too much of this may pose a threat to the brain development of infants and young children. Compared to other methods, manganese is most easily absorbed by the body through drinking.

Manganese used to only be the cause of staining on laundry or plumbing fixtures, but with the development of newer scientific studies, it has shown some health effects from too much exposure to its high levels. This new information was then used to regulate the amount of manganese in drinking water.

According to The Department of Environmental Services, the health-based groundwater quality standard for manganese is 0.84 mg/L, because staining begins at 0.05 mg/L and the treatment for its removal always occurs well below this standard.

Checking for Manganese

If people receive their water supply with questionable discoloration, they should immediately ask their water supplier and avoid drinking this first. Manganese and iron can sometimes cause discoloration and still be safe enough to drink, but a confirmation from one’s supplier would be the best way to go about it. On the other hand, other activities such as showering, hand washing and dishwashing with discolored water have posed no health concerns thus far.

In this situation, it is best to drink from bottled waters, especially when preparing baby formula for young children and infants, for they are at a higher risk than adults. Drinking water that is beyond the standard level for short periods is typically harmless, but shall the situation persist, it would be best to switch suppliers and ask for advice on the water treatment that is best for one’s home.

It is possible to opt for a home drinking water treatment system to reduce high levels of manganese at one’s home, and this may be done using reverse osmosis, water softeners and oxidizing filters which are installed at a home’s entry. Boiling water may further increase manganese in water, so it is not recommended.

Iron Bacteria in Water Wells

A high level of iron and manganese found in water wells can be an opportune time for iron bacteria to grow. These organisms produce a slimy consistency that not only leaves the water dirty but may also clog the filters and other plumbing sources.

Some common entries made by iron bacteria is during well drilling or operations for pump installation. To prevent it from accumulating, the assembly of the submersible pump must be kept clean and disinfected, which most assemblers fail to do efficiently, or at all.

Preventing the growth of iron bacteria in public places may be quite tricky, for it occurs naturally in the environment. Although it can be present in groundwater, it is typically found on top of the ground, although limited, because of its limited food supply.

Once it enters a well, it is almost impossible to fully eradicate this infestation. There are a few options that can be taken when it comes to cleaning out these crucial areas. These entail different methods, and can only promise to remove or reduce existing bacteria, but fully eliminating iron bacteria can pose many difficulties and can be very pricey. Professionals would know which method would be best for each respective case.

Physical removal is typically the first step when faced with heavily infected wells. A licensed contractor would first remove and clean the pumping equipment, scrub the good casing with specific brushes, and usually go into the chemical treatment.

Chemical treatment has been tried and tested by several owners and contractors with the same concern and has been the most common treatment technique for iron bacteria, no matter what kind of equipment has been affected.

Disinfectants are the primary chemicals that are paired with this treatment. Depending on the gravity of the case, different chemicals can be used. Laundry bleach containing chlorine may be the most accessible for homeowners, but chlorine tablets or granulated chlorine may also be options when covering bigger areas.

Surfactants are chemicals that mirror detergents, such as phosphates, and are usually paired with another chemical treatment. This is a little harder for homeowners going through their cleansing process, for it still involves the use of disinfectants such as chlorine, phosphates may simply be used as a food source by bacteria if not done properly.

Acids can also be used to dissolve iron deposits, destroy bacteria and loosen the slimy residue. Acids are usually used as one of the few series of treatments that include chlorine and other bases. This method should be left for professionals to do, for disposing of these materials may be more crucial than they seem. Mixing acid and chlorine may be dangerous.

Pasteurization, another method to be considered, involves injecting steam or hot water into the affected area to keep the well water temperature hot for 30 minutes. This may be effective, but quite expensive.

Chlorine was mentioned several times in the prior methods for it is cheap and easy to use, but may not always be fully effective. This may require doing the treatment more than once while considering both the concentration level of the chlorine and the duration of its contact with the bacteria. While it may seem practical to constantly inject chlorine into affected areas, the Minnesota Department of Health advises against this, for it may hide other contaminations and corrosion issues.

Shock Chlorination involves the use of strong chlorine solution to disinfect the system. This entails the use of a concentration not greater than 200 parts per million, for anything beyond this reduces the effectiveness. The area to be cleansed should be cleared and cleaned before pouring the solution.

Checking for Other Contaminants

While iron bacteria can be one of the most evident issues found in wells and water pipes, other natural and manmade activities can also cause issues that may come with health concerns. Testing well water, pipes and other areas with different methods can help in maintaining them better in the long run.

One way of checking for bacteria may be through the presence of coliform bacteria. This organism is widely present in the environment and the feces of warm-blooded animals. This bacteria is not harmful, but its presence may indicate that disease-causing pathogens are inhabiting water supplies.

When infants are present in a household, it is also advisable to check for the presence of Nitrate every other year, for they are susceptible to being affected by these if its presence is more than 10 milligrams per liter in drinking water.

Water supplies should be checked for Arsenic presence at least once, for it is commonly found in wells. Drinking water that is contaminated by arsenic for long periods may cause reduced intelligence in children and an increased risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Water systems may have parts of lead in them that could get into the water and may damage the brain, kidneys and nervous system. It may also cause slow development, and problems in learning, behavior, and hearing.

Other contaminants occur less than those mentioned, but occur more commonly in private properties than public wells and systems:

Volatile organic chemicals may have effects on wells if they are near fuel tanks or an industrial area. Agricultural chemicals are also commonly used in shallow wells, and if they are near cropped fields or handling areas for several agricultural chemicals that are solely used for these purposes. Geological chemicals may also be carriers of chemicals that should not be brought close to water supplies.

Although fluoride is widely used for dental care, hefty amounts of this element should not be taken in with drinking water, for it can also pose some health issues.