By Justin Dragos | Special to the Vermont Guardian
Posted March 22, 2007
SOUTH BURLINGTON — Nearly one year ago, the Champlain Water District became the first municipal water provider in Vermont to add an additional disinfectant called chloramine to its potable water system.
The following day, Ellen Powell of South Burlington, one of the nine towns served by Champlain Water District (CWD), started experiencing irritations in her eyes and on her skin, as well as problems breathing.
Suspecting that chloramine might be responsible, since nothing else was new to her water supply, she immediately sent a letter to the editor of newspapers throughout Chittenden County. The responses she received confirmed her fears. Other residents were claiming to have experienced similar symptoms.
Local concern over the chloramination of the tap water led Powell to help form a group called People Concerned about Chloramine (PCAC). More than 130 people have since come forward with reports of what they believe to be chloramine-related problems.
The CWD maintains that monochloramine — which is formed by chemically bonding chorine with ammonia — is entirely safe for human consumption and use. It is one of three disinfectants sanctioned by the EPA for use in potable water systems along with chlorine and chlorine dioxide.
PCAC, however, asserts that there are a number of reasons why chloramine should not be used. “Among the many concerns we have about chloramine, there are eight key points,” says Rebecca Reno, a PCAC member. “One is that there has been no adequate testing on the skin or respiratory effects of chloramine on human beings.”
Dale Kemery, a spokesman for the regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said such tests have been conducted. They are contained in a 155-page public report.
However, the report clearly states that information on the human health effects of chloramines “are limited to a few clinical reports and epidemiologic studies. There are no epidemiologic studies that have been designed to address specifically the potential adverse effects of exposure to chloramines on human health.”
The report also claims that such testing has not been done on animals either.
CWD claims studies have been performed on the skin and respiratory effects of chloramine on human beings and provided the Guardian with a list of chloramine related health studies. Several studies pertained to the digestive effects of chloramines, but none focused on the respiratory effects of chloramine on human beings. And, there was only one study on the dermal effects in humans.
This study, conducted by June Wientraub in California, consisted of 17 phone interviews with people claiming chloramine-related symptoms. Wientraub concluded, “The complaints described were heterogeneous, and many of the respondents had underlying or preexisting conditions that would offer plausible alternative explanations for their symptoms. We did not recommend further study of these complaints.”
A growing concern
Many of the people who have come forward claiming side effects have reported symptoms that are consistent with those experienced in districts throughout the country. Complaints have arisen in California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, and Texas.
“I think the 400-plus people who have come forward here in the bay area goes a long way in proving a cause and effect relationship,” said Denise Kula, founder of Citizens Concerned about Chloramine, a San Francisco-based organization.
CWD officials say such claims are unproven.
“To date no reported symptoms have been linked by evidence-based physician diagnosis to be related to CWD’s drinking water,” CWD officials said in a four-page flyer responding to PCAC’s claims.
“It’s a catch-22,” said Reno.“If there is no formal testing done on the respiratory or dermal effects then there is no criteria upon which doctors can make an informed diagnosis.”
Many people in the area have performed tests on their own. They have refrained from using CWD’s water for weeks at time in order to see for themselves if it is the cause of their problems.
“Nearly every person who has done this finds that within days their symptoms are gone. As soon as they start taking showers in their own home again, they return,” said Reno.
Powell is one of the many people who continue to avoid using their own water. “I have to drive seven miles just to shower. Why would I or anyone else do this if we weren’t absolutely sure that our symptoms were coming from our faucets?” she said.
Unlike chlorine, chloramine cannot be boiled out of the water or removed by letting the water sit out. It can only be removed by expensive home filtering systems which cost thousands of dollars.
The World Health Organization claims “chloramine is 2,000 to 100,000 times less effective than free chloramines for inactivation of E. Coli and rotaviruses.” Chlorine however, can result in cancer causing disinfectant byproducts that chloramine can reduce. PCAC asserts that there are other methods to reduce these byproducts such as prefiltration.
The Canadian EPA calls chloramine “toxic to the environment,” but it allows it to be used in tap water.
Toxic water spill?
Aside from the human effects, PCAC is worried it will harm aquatic life. CWD has issued warnings to homeowners before adding chloramine and the impact it might have on aquatic pets.
For many, the question this raises is “what are the potential effects on the eco-system if chloramine were to find its way into the watershed?”
According to Mike Barsotti, the director of water quality control at CWD, this is not a threat.
“Chloramine will not remain in the water outside of a controlled system,” Barsotti. Because the water mixes with so many other substances, the chloramines are used up in a matter of hours or days.
“The ground interface does not have the conditions of a clean, disinfected water system [because of dirt, etc.], and therefore, the chlorine residual from free chlorine and monochloramines dissipates much more quickly at the ground interface,” Barsotti said.
This does not rule out the possible environmental damage were a water main to break.
“There have been some instances of fish kills due to breaks of water mains where the utility has not been able to contain the spill or direct the water into sewers for transport to the wastewater treatment plant, but these are not common,” said Kemery of the EPA.
Reno believes CWD could meet new EPA drinking water standards without chloramines, such as using prefiltration.
A new set of sanitation goals spurred on by a series of EPA guidelines under the Safe Drinking Water Act calls for a reduction in the allowed level of disinfectant by-products (DBPs) in potable water. Chloramine has succeeded in decreasing to levels far beyond EPA requirements.
It is wondered whether these regulations could have been more moderately met through alternative measures.
Prefiltration is a method of filtering total organic carbon (TOC) out of the water prior to disinfection. TOC reacts with chlorine to form DBPs.
CWD does use a prefiltration method known as enhanced coagulation, Barsotti said. This method removes 25 to 35 percent of TOC. He states that because of CWD’s deep Shelburne Bay water source, which starts out with a low TOC level compared to other water districts, CWD does not use the more common and thorough method of prefiltration known as carbon contracting. This latter method, Barsotti adds, contains several drawbacks such as necessitating large amounts of fuel and landfill space in the transportation and disposal of waste matter produced from this method.
However, this method would reduce the level of TOC and, as logic follows, the level of DBPs in the drinking water. Whether it would reduce them to levels meeting EPA regulations is disputed.
Additionally, it is also asserted that chloramine has its own byproducts — dichloramine and trichloramine.
“It is impossible for CWD water to drop to these extremely low pH levels due to the natural buffering capacity of the deep Shelburne Bay source. CWD’s optimized monochloramines residual actually eliminates the possibility of dichloramine and trichloramine being formed,” said Barsotti.
What’s on tap
With CWD the first, and arguably the largest, water system in Vermont approving the use of chloramines — will other districts follow?
As of right now, it appears there are no concrete plans for the addition of chloramine anywhere else in Vermont. While some water districts have expressed doubts over chloramine, few have ruled out completely the idea of adding it in the future.
Tom Dion, the chief operator of water at Burlington Public Works, said that their DBP level does not warrant adding chloramines. Like CWD, Burlington sources its water from Lake Champlain.
Officials in Berlin and Bennington also said they had no immediate plans to add chloramines, but would consider it if necessary, or as a last resort.
John Highter, chief operator of Brattleboro’s water treatment plant, said the town has no intention of adding chloramine. “I’m a little hesitant about ever mixing ammonia and chlorine together in our water,” Highter said.
Chloramine has been used in water for 90 years. However, it has only been used as disinfectant in the past few decades. Prior to this, it was used in very small dosages primarily to rid water of unpleasant taste.
This week, PCAC will present its case before the Legislature. Experts from both sides will give statements.
For Powell, the end result is simple: “We want this stuff out of our water.”