The Minus Approach Can Redefine the Standard of Practice of Drinking Water Treatment

Elliot Reid, Thomas Igou, Yangying Zhao, John Crittenden, Ching Hua Huang, Paul Westerhoff, Bruce Rittmann, Jörg E. Drewes, Yongsheng Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Chlorine-based disinfection for drinking water treatment (DWT) was one of the 20th century’s great public health achievements, as it substantially reduced the risk of acute microbial waterborne disease. However, today’s chlorinated drinking water is not unambiguously safe; trace levels of regulated and unregulated disinfection byproducts (DBPs), and other known, unknown, and emerging contaminants (KUECs), present chronic risks that make them essential removal targets. Because conventional chemical-based DWT processes do little to remove DBPs or KUECs, alternative approaches are needed to minimize risks by removing DBP precursors and KUECs that are ubiquitous in water supplies. We present the “Minus Approach” as a toolbox of practices and technologies to mitigate KUECs and DBPs without compromising microbiological safety. The Minus Approach reduces problem-causing chemical addition treatment (i.e., the conventional “Plus Approach”) by producing biologically stable water containing pathogens at levels having negligible human health risk and substantially lower concentrations of KUECs and DBPs. Aside from ozonation, the Minus Approach avoids primary chemical-based coagulants, disinfectants, and advanced oxidation processes. The Minus Approach focuses on bank filtration, biofiltration, adsorption, and membranes to biologically and physically remove DBP precursors, KUECs, and pathogens; consequently, water purveyors can use ultraviolet light at key locations in conjunction with smaller dosages of secondary chemical disinfectants to minimize microbial regrowth in distribution systems. We describe how the Minus Approach contrasts with the conventional Plus Approach, integrates with artificial intelligence, and can ultimately improve the sustainability performance of water treatment. Finally, we consider barriers to adoption of the Minus Approach.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7150-7161
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number18
StatePublished - May 9 2023


  • artificial intelligence
  • biofiltration
  • drinking water treatment
  • membranes
  • sustainability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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