March 29, 2006

Janet Abair, owner of The Pet Stop in Milton, admires a beta fish at her store Friday. Abair is concerned about a new chemical process that requires water to be treated before it is used in an aquarium.

Champlain Water District alters treatment

By Candace Page, Free Press Staff Writer

Champlain Water District will change the way it disinfects its water on April 10, switching to a process intended to produce fewer potentially cancer-causing byproducts.

Most of the 68,000 people served by the district will sense no change in their water, but people with home aquariums must pay attention: A new compound in the water could kill their fish, so the water must be properly treated before use. In addition, dialysis centers will have to take additional steps to purify the water.

The district, which delivers water to nine Chittenden County towns, will augment the chlorine treatment used throughout the United States to kill bacteria and other microorganisms that can cause serious illness.

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.

CWD will add an ammonia compound to the 10 million gallons of chlorine-treated water it processes every day. The ammonia and chlorine will combine to form a new compound, chloramine, that is more stable than free chlorine and creates fewer disinfectant byproducts.

"As far as what's in the water, it's overall better for you than regular chlorination," Health Department toxicologist Bill Bress said last week.

Chloramines have been used in American water systems for a century. Chloramination was even more common in the 1930s and '40s, Bress noted, until World War II caused a scarcity of ammonia.

At the Champlain Water District, General Manager Jim Fay said the system is making the switch to get ahead of federal Environmental Protection Agency plans to tighten regulation of chlorinated byproducts in drinking water.

"We think it is prudent to do it now and not in six years," he said, "because in the meantime we are doing something that is very protective of public health."

Protecting fish

CWD's switch requires the most attention from kidney dialysis centers -- which must have pure, chemical-free water -- and people who keep fish.

At Fletcher Allen Health Care, the dialysis center in South Burlington has added two extra-large carbon filter tanks that will remove chloramines, according to spokesman Mike Noble.

At pet stores around Chittenden County, owners are trying to spread the word before April 10.

"It's a pretty big deal," said Madeleine Dawson, co-owner of The Pet Advantage store in South Burlington. "Chlorine and ammonia will both kill fish if they aren't removed before water is added to the fish tank."

Dawson keeps fish -- clown loaches, Australian rainbows, gouramis -- at home. Like other aquarium owners, she treats the water with a conditioner that renders chlorine harmless. Now she will have to switch to a conditioner that has the same effect on ammonia.

"That's where we come in," she said of her business. The Pet Advantage, like other stores, has been distributing handouts that guide fish owners on the need for water treatment, and for the regular changing of carbon filters to remove chemical residuals once water is in the tank.

'The devil you know'

Fay, the water district general manager, said about 40 people have called with questions or concerns about the new water treatment.

One of those people is Ellen Powell, 56, a musician, music teacher and resident of South Burlington. She said last week she has a general concern about the number of chemicals added to water in the United States.

She's specifically concerned about stories she has read that chloramines can cause lead in water pipes to dissolve into the water. She knows chlorine creates worrisome byproducts, but also wonders about the unnamed byproducts created by chloramine treatment.

"If you drink it every day, how will it affect you?" she asked. "Basically, the choice is between the devil you know and the devil you don't know."

Fay said customers should not be worried about either issue. First, there are no lead pipes in the distribution system, though some customers might have lead solder in their pipe joints. The district already adds a corrosion inhibitor to the water. In addition, the district has begun adding potassium hydroxide to raise the Ph of the water to further inhibit lead corrosion.

Once the chloramination treatment is fine-tuned, the system should see a 50 percent drop in the undesirable disinfectant byproducts, he said. Those byproducts already are found at levels below EPA standards, he
said, in part because the district has an excellent water source deep in Shelburne Bay.

Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or
Frequently asked questions

What are chloramines?
Compounds of chlorine and ammonia, used to kill bacteria in drinking water. Chloramines are more stable and longer lasting than chlorine and produce less odor and taste.

Where will chloramines be used?
Champlain Water District in South Burlington will become the first Vermont system to use chloramines on April 10.

What towns are affected?
Champlain Water District supplies water to: Colchester Fire Districts 1 and 3, Malletts Bay Water Co. and the area around Exit 16 of Interstate 89; Essex, Essex Junction, Jericho village, Milton, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski

How do I remove chloramines from my drinking water if I choose to do so?
Although the Vermont Health Department says there is no health-related reason to filter the water, if you choose to do so, you can use the activated carbon water filters found in many stores to remove the chlorine. There is no need to remove the ammonia, according to the water district.

How can I learn more about the switch?
Call the Champlain Water District, 864-7454, and speak to Mike Barsotti, director of water quality and production, or to Jim Fay, general manager.