Health Department will not halt chloramine use

John Dillon
MONTPELIER, VT (2007-04-16)

(Host) The State Health Department will not stop use of a controversial water treatment that some Chittenden County residents say makes them sick.

Acting Health Commissioner Sharon Moffatt says that a preliminary survey of physicians has uncovered few complaints about chloramine.

VPR's John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) Chloramine is a chemical used to disinfect water. The Champlain Water District - which serves about 68,000 people began using it about a year ago.

But more than 100 people have reported rashes, eye irritation and other problems that they attribute to the water additive.

Acting Commissioner Sharon Moffatt told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that about 200 doctors were surveyed to ask if they've seen any symptoms.

Moffatt said the results are very preliminary. But she says she would not recommend that the district stop using the chemical.

(Moffatt) "There is definitely a public health concern. Is there a public health risk? Not based on what information we have to date."

(Dillon) Water companies use chloramines so they can limit their use of chlorine, which itself is a health risk. Chlorine reacts with tiny organic particles in the water to form compounds that can potentially cause cancer. So Moffatt says she has to look at the trade-offs between the two chemicals.

(Moffatt) "The other piece I have to weigh is the choice between chlorines and chloramines when it really comes down to it. What we do know - and we do have the scientific data that shows it - is there's a reason municipalities are going to chloramines, because of the health effects of chlorines."

(Dillon) The Health Department survey asked doctors if they've "clinically suspected" whether the treated water caused patient symptoms. But Matt Levin of Vermonters for a Clean Environment said the survey's wording was flawed. He said the Health Department asked a question that doctors couldn't really answer.

(Levin) "As we've been saying for months there are no studies on the possible impacts of chloraminated water on human health. And thus there is no clinical basis for a diagnosis. And thus there is no diagnosis."

(Dillon) In the meantime, Levin said, the complaints keep coming in.

(Levin) "It's worth pointing out that, really most important, the suffering continues. The skin rashes, the breathing problems, the monthly bills for spring water."

(Dillon) Committee Chairman Doug Racine said he can't second-guess health officials in their decision to continue to allow chloramine use.

But he said he believes that some people have a bad reaction to the chemical.

(Racine) "They tell us that when they go away or they start showering or drinking water from someplace outside the district that the symptoms go away, and I believe them. And until this legislative committee started looking at this, I do not feel that the Health Department or the Champlain Water District was taking their concerns seriously enough."

(Dillon) Racine says the committee will probably not write legislation, but will continue to play an oversight role on chloramine.

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