Citizens protest use of chloramine by Champlain Water District

John Dillon

Water tank at Champlain Water District
 MONTPELIER, VT. (2007-03-20)

(Host) Most people know that chlorine is commonly used to disinfect drinking water.

But what do you know about chloramine?

The largest water system in the state uses chloramine in addition to chlorine.

But a citizens' group says more than 100 people in Chittenden County have complained about skin irritation and other problems that they say are related to the chemical.

VPR's John Dillon has this special report.

(Dillon) To get a drink of water, Ellen Powell doesn't simply turn on the tap.

(Powell) (Splashing sound) "So there you go. This is the waste water, and this is the filtered water (trickle sound). It's going to take 14 minutes to fill up a half a gallon."

(Dillon) Powell lives in South Burlington, and she gets her water from the Champlain Water District. Almost a year ago, the district started using a new water disinfectant to replace chlorine under some conditions.

Powell noticed the change immediately. Her eyes stung when she took a shower.

(Powell) "And by the time I got dressed and came downstairs they were burning severely and tears were pouring out of them. And that went on - the tearing went on for the rest of the day - and the burning lasted for 36 hours. And I was horrified. I couldn't believe it. I thought oh my God, if the water does this to my eyes, I'm certainly not going to drink it."

(Dillon) Powell eventually installed a $350 water filter in her condo. She takes showers at a friend's house in Burlington. And she began talking to people about chloramine. She says more than 100 people in Chittenden County have complained about potential health issues from the water additive.

(Powell) "Some people have rashes. Some people have downright sores. Some people have combinations of those things. Some people are just wheezing, other people are just coughing and sneezing."

(Dillon) But chloramine is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health.

(Fay) "To date, there's been no association with the drinking water."

(Dillon) Jim Fay is the manager of the Champlain Water District, which serves 68,000 customers. He sees no cause and effect between the chemical and the health complaints.

(Fay) "Some of these symptoms definitely are occurring in the general population, and are common symptoms in the general population whether you're on free chlorine, or mono chloramine, or well water."

(Dillon) It's an irony of the chloramine debate that the district began using the chemical to solve a potential health problem.

The concern is over chlorine, the most widely used disinfectant. Chlorine is extremely effective in killing the germs and water borne pathogens that can make people sick. But the chemical reacts with tiny organic particles - such as bits of leaves and algae -to form by-products that are considered a risk for certain cancers.

So the district - which has won awards for innovation - decided to cut its chlorine use.

Mark Barsotti is the director of water quality and production. He says the district adds ammonium sulfate to the water. That chemical reacts with the free chlorine to form chloramines.

(Barsotti) "It travels throughout the distribution system ensuring that the water maintains its sanitary quality at the same time it stops that reaction with the total organic carbon and the free chlorine. So that reaction is put to rest, so to speak."

(Dillon) The Champlain Water District draws water from Lake Champlain and then treats it at a state of the art facility in South Burlington. Technicians take samples at various level of treatment.

(Barsotti) (Trickle sound) "This is water at the lake that's pumped all the way up here. This is the water after we've added our coagulants and started forming clumps. This is the water before disinfection, right out of the filters basically. And this is finished water that's going out to people's homes. (trickle sound).

All right, this is our treatment and transmission and control center, right here. People basically work here and control ( Ding' sound). You can hear the alarms that are going off. These are alarms that let us know anything about anything out in the system."

(Dillon) District officials are clearly proud of their work. Manager Jim Fay says the goal is to stay out ahead of upcoming federal regulations to cut chlorine use.

(Fay) "We are the largest utility in Vermont and we do take public health and protection and optimization of water quality, We try to take that to the nth degree, to be very pro-active.

(Dillon) But the critics say chloramine has not been adequately tested for its health effects

(Wolf) "I think we may be jumping out of the frying pan of chlorinating water and into the fire of chloramination of water."

(Dillon) Martin Wolf is a chemist who lives in Shelburne. He did a search of the scientific literature on the chemical for the group People Concerned about Chloramine.

(Wolf) "I think that EPA has recommended chloramination based on available data and has not done the necessary research to prove that this is safe. Especially, if we are looking at non-lethal effects, which is a skin irritation, for which very seldom do you actually do studies."

(Dillon) Wolf says there is some research that shows physiological effects from chloramine, even at the low levels used by the district.

Dr. Ed Pomicter is a physician who also lives in Shelburne. He said that the treated water made his eyes itchy but that the problems stopped when he installed a whole-house filtration system. That's not an option for everyone, he says.

(Pomicter) "Most people can't afford to filter it out from there water. So they don't really have a choice of taking themselves out of this experiment that's being performed on the public, because that's really what it is."

(Dillon) The water district and the state health department say if people have complaints, they should go to their doctor. The Health Department says its own search of the medical literature shows that chloramine is safe.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.