"Clean Water Conundrum"

(Broadcast Date: February 17, 2009)

The process for disinfecting the water that comes out of your tap may be changing. New federal regulations aimed at improving water quality are prompting many utilities to switch the chemicals they use. But one increasingly popular disinfectant may do more harm than good. DUQ's Katherine Fink reports. LISTEN.

Elmer's Aquarium in Monroeville sells all kinds of small animals, but especially fish.  Tanks and tanks of them.  "These are all fresh water.  These fish come from all over the world.  These are from Africa, these are from South America."  Karen Lukacina is the store's vice president.  Elmer's has been here 40 years and Elmer was my father.  A lot has changed since then, including the products that are available to purify tap water for use in aquariums.  When you first started out with fish, this was the product, it was just called DeChlor and it simply took out chlorine because that's the only thing we needed to worry about.  Chlorine poisons fish.  So does chloramine, a disinfectant that forms when chlorine comes with ammonia.  But there's an important difference.  Chloramine does not dissipate from water over time.  Some fish owners have been accustomed to setting out tap water for a few days to get rid of chlorine.  That won't work with chloramine.  Lukacina says she recommends that all fish owners purify their water just in case.  "Because we don't really know when someone comes in here if, what their water is treated with, whether it's chlorine or chloramine and they can always call and check but to be safe we just think everyone should just go ahead and treat their water.  

Chloramine's persistence is one reason drinking water providers like it.  They know it will continue to kill bacteria even if it has to travel through miles and miles of pipe.  And some customers say they prefer the taste and smell compared to water that's been treated with chlorine.  "Chloramine has been used since the 1930's.  It's been used very effectively."  Helen Humphreys is with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.  Although chloramine has been around for a while, only about a fifth of water providers have used it.  Soon that's expected to increase to two thirds.  That's because of new clean water regulations aimed at reducing byproducts that form in the presence of chlorine.  The Environmental Protection Agency believes some of those byproducts increase the risk of bladder cancer.  So by 2012 Humphreys says water providers will have to comply with new limits on the levels of those byproducts in drinking water.  "And chloramine, by interacting less with the organic materials found in drinking water, simply results in a lower level of disinfectant byproducts."  But all disinfectants have their downside.  Some people say chloramine in their water has caused rashes, asthma attacks and digestive problems.  Humphreys says there's no definitive proof that chloramine is to blame.  "When it is used consistent with the EPA in Pennsylvania requirements that it not exceed 4 parts per million in the finished drinking water, that the system be optimized so that it's used effectively.  It's safe."  

Actually there are still a lot of questions about chloramine's safety.  "Personally as a private citizen I would be a little bit concerned myself and might have a filter on my faucet."  Susan Richardson is an EPA chemist based in Atlanta.  She says chloramine also forms byproducts and in a recent study she determined that some of those byproducts are even more toxic than the ones created by chlorine.  But Richardson said a lot depends on what's in raw water before it gets treated, and she says more research is needed to determine the potential impact on human health.  "I'm really hoping that some of the toxicologists at EPA are gonna carry this further to really help us assess that.  So right now we've got some early indication that they may be a problem but we really need the whole animal data to be able to say either way."  

Attorney Susan Pickford says the EPA is sending conflicting messages about chloramine.  "EPA is this octopus.  You have one arm one side of the octopus that's doing all this research, but you've got the regulatory branch on the other side of the octopus and until that information gets from one side to the other, nothing is going to happen on a legal standpoint as far as regulating them."  Pickford is part of a group in the Camp Hill area that's trying to stop Pennsylvania American Water from using chloramine there.  She says there are other effective options for disinfecting water, but it all comes down to "Money.  Money.  It's cheaper to dump ammonia in our water than it is to acquire better filtration.  With better filtration they could use less chlorine and have less byproducts."  

Money is of course a factor.  But there are many others.  Even the best filters leave in some organic material and Pennsylvania American Water wouldn't use chloramine if it thought it was unsafe, says Paul Zelinsky.  He's the company's director of water quality and environmental compliance.  "We wouldn't be moving ahead with treatment that hurts people.  We are public health agents in ourselves, we utilize best treatments and we rely on EPA and DEP to guide us with those processes."  Pennsylvania American uses chloramine at 10 of its plants already, and it's not alone.  The Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County uses chloramine.  So does the Wilkinsburg Penn Joint Water Authority, although it only adds chloramine in the summer months.  Mark Lurch, who is the director of supply there, says he's considered other treatment options like ultra violet light or ozone, but those, too, have their drawbacks.  There is a byproduct of ozonation, formaldehyde is a byproduct which again is a carcinogenic substance.  So there's a trade-off."  And changing EPA regulations aren't all that water providers have to consider.  Lurch said water treatment came under closer scrutiny after 9/11.  We're required to have a risk management plan, because of the danger of chlorine gas being released to the public.  

Chloramine has its own security concerns.  It's a weaker disinfectant than chlorine, so some researchers say it might not be as effective in fighting off the chemical attack.  There's still one more concern about chloramine, and it explains at least in part why the Pittsburgh water and sewer authority has no plans to use it.  Chloramine corrodes lead and copper pipes.  Lead pipes are no longer used in new construction, but a lot of older homes have them.  In the early part of this decade, lead levels in some Washington DC homes were thousands of times higher than Federal limit.  

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards was the one who first traced the lead problem to chloramine.  He says the extent of the corrosion depends on several factors, including the pH of the water.  "It also has to do with the history of the water system so how many lead pipes are out there, because the Washington DC problem was in large part due to the presence of lead pipes, although solder and brass were also affected."  Edwards says the problem in Washington DC was so bad that young children may have lost IQ points.  Now, water systems that use chloramine generally add other chemicals that inhibit the corrosion of lead and copper.  Does adding those extra chemicals to the mix have any negative consequences?  The answer, Edwards says, it depends.  "Because every system is different, every water is different, there is no universal answer that we can apply everywhere.  A lot of engineering, science and judgment goes into providing safe drinking water and you really have to weigh risk."  And that's why despite the problems in Washington, Edwards says he's not opposed to the use of chloramine as a drinking water disinfectant, as long as water providers know what they're doing.  

For DUQ News, I'm Catherine Fink.