Commentary, April 29, 2007

My Turn: Concern about chloramine must be taken seriously

By Annette Smith

Most Vermonters believe that our state is blessed with an abundance of clean water. Unfortunately, the reality is murkier.

About 60 percent of Vermonters get their drinking water from groundwater wells. Groundwater can contain minerals and impurities such as arsenic, uranium, nitrates, or other contaminants. Owners of private wells should have their water tested annually and then install appropriate filters to assure its safety.

The rest of Vermonters get their water from springs, streams or lakes, using surface or "natural" water. Even water that starts out clean requires treatment to make sure it is safe.

Many of us trust that tap water is healthy, no matter what the source or treatment. But changes in federal rules governing public water supplies require that public water system customers pay special attention to what is being added to your water and how it might affect you.

Vermont has joined the growing number of states with public water systems that are switching from free chlorine to chloramine as a water disinfectant. In April 2006, the Champlain Water District, which serves 68,000 people in Chittenden County, began adding ammonium sulfate to the chlorine, creating chloramine. Almost immediately, some water district customers complained about skin and breathing problems after using the water.

Over time, complaints have increased, both in the types of symptoms and the number of people who say they can no longer bathe in their own home or drink and cook with the water. While chlorine can be filtered out inexpensively, chloramine cannot be easily removed.

Why is this change happening? Chlorine disinfection has almost completely eliminated the risks from waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery, but research has found there are some possible health problems when chlorine reacts with organic matter.

In response to these concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued new, stricter standards for public water supplies to reduce levels of "disinfection byproducts" created by chlorine. EPA has given its blessing to chloramine or chlorine dioxide to meet this new rule, even though chloramine's disinfection byproducts may be more toxic than chlorine's and are still being identified. Other accepted disinfection methods include microfiltration, ozone, and ultraviolet light.

There is compelling evidence that chloramine has unintended consequences for some water users. Since systems in the greater San Francisco area switched to chloramine in 2004, more than 600 people there have reported health problems they believe are caused by chloramine. Washington, D.C., experienced high lead levels after the introduction of chloramine.

Some state water supply directors have decided against using chloramine because it is known to be an inferior disinfectant, can be corrosive, and there is concern about health effects. Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia are choosing not to dip into the uncharted waters of chloramination.

The most disturbing aspect of chloramine is how the public is treated when they bring their concerns about health effects to public health officials and those in charge of the water systems. Until the legislatures got involved in both Vermont and California, there had been no action.

Doctors are now being asked to respond to a survey by the Vermont Department of Health. But since there are no human health studies for respiratory and dermal exposure to chloramine, it may be impossible for doctors to clinically connect the symptoms people are experiencing with the water.

A year after the Champlain Water District started chloramination, health complaints from residents continue to increase. It should not have taken a year for allegations of health problems to be taken seriously. As David Ozonoff, professor of environmental health and chairman emeritus of the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, said in a letter presented by Vermonters for a Clean Environment to the Vermont Senate Health and Welfare Committee two weeks ago, "health complaints from water users attendant upon any treatment change are a red flag and need attention."

Champlain Water District, please listen.

Annette Smith of Danby is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment Inc.