September 27, 2007

CDC hears chloramine complaints

Published: Thursday, September 27, 2007
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer

A dozen Chittenden County residents described a plague of health problems -- severe skin rashes, irritated eyes and more -- and begged Wednesday for help putting an end to use of the water treatment chemical they blame for their woes.

They strongly criticized the Vermont Health Department for defending use of the chemical, chloramine, and failing to take steps to end its use.

As they spoke, experts from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listened.

The epidemiologists and water supply regulators were invited to Vermont by the Health Department to explore the reported health problems. They reached no conclusion Wednesday and said they did not have the power to take immediate action.

Chloramine has been used as a secondary disinfectant by Champlain Water District since April 2006 and is used in many places across the country.

"My skin started to erupt on all different parts of my body," Raymonde Perron of Winooski told the CDC epidemiologists.

"I started itching, getting a rash, it got worse and worse and worse," said Bobby Lavigne of Winooski. He passed around photographs of his legs, scarlet and peppered with lesions, as they looked after he began bathing in chloramine-treated water.

"My symptoms were really frightening. My throat really almost closed up. It was so swollen I was afraid of going to sleep," Joanne Davis of South Burlington said.

They, like other witnesses from Shelburne and Colchester, said their symptoms abated when they stopped drinking, cooking or bathing with CWD water.

Their testimony was laced with frustration and anger.

"The Health Department's energy is going into proving they are right" about the safety of chloramines, Davis said. "No one in authority is saying something is wrong, radically wrong."

Ellen Powell, an organizer of the local group People Concerned About Chloramines, criticized the information the state Health Department distributes to reassure people that chloramines are safe.

The householders got no immediate satisfaction. Lorraine Backer, an epidemiologist at the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, said her team will interview sufferers in their homes today. They will take the information back with them for more study.

"We empathize," she said, but "there is nothing we can say at this point."

Dr. Donald Swartz, the state Health Department's chief medical officer, was sympathetic to those who spoke, but stood by the Health Department's handling of the chloramine controversy.

"There could be individuals who are reacting to choloramines -- clearly, there are people with problems," he said. "But what the cause of that problem is is not at all clear."

The Health Department must consider the greatest good for the greatest number, he said, and chloramines are thought to have fewer potentially harmful byproducts than chlorine.

The controversy began when CWD changed its water treatment system in 2006 to augment chlorine with chloramine.

Chlorine used alone has two drawbacks: It dissipates quickly from water, weakening its disinfectant strength in the distant reaches of a spread-out water district. Chlorine also interacts with organic matter in the water to produce new substances, known as disinfection byproducts, that are suspected of causing cancer.

Water supply systems are under orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce those chlorine byproducts.

CWD adds an ammonia compound to the 10 million gallons of chlorine-treated water it processes every day. The ammonia and chlorine combine to form chloramine, which lasts longer in the water than free chlorine.

"Should we remove it because a few people suspect chloramine, rightly or wrongly? Or should we continue to use chloramine because it has more favorable-looking disinfectant byproducts?" Swartz asked rhetorically after the meeting.

He said the Health Department will continue studying chloramine but for now wants to reassure Champlain Water District customers that their water is safe.

Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or