Hunting for link between water and health, CDC tours plant

By John Curran, Associated Press Writer  |  September 27, 2007

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. --Looking for clues to help shed light on a rash of complaints about drinking water, investigators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toured a water treatment plant and continued interviewing affected people Thursday, part of a three-day visit looking into whether a disinfectant called chloramine is to blame for health problems.

Dozens of people who live in towns served by the Champlain Water District say they've endured skin rashes, respiratory problems and digestive irregularities since the district began using chloramine in addition to chlorine in April 2006.

Several of them turned out Wednesday for a public session in which they listed a litany of symptoms -- rashes, congestion, burning eyes -- and pleaded with representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC to find out whether their tap water is causing it.

"I just want to take a shower in my own home," said Ellen Powell, 57, who helped organize People Concerned About Chloramine, a citizens group that has advocated for relief.

Powell, a jazz musician, has stopped using tap water for all but laundry and dish washing purposes. She bought a membership to a YMCA so she could shower in a place that does not treat its water with chloramine.

"We've had over 200 people report to us. We have over 50 who have demonstrated cause and effect by stopping their exposure to the water and seeing the symptoms disappear. There's not one person who did that that didn't see their symptoms disappear," she said.

Chloramine has been used as a secondary disinfectant for decades, but its use has increased as public water authorities move to reduce levels of byproducts from disinfectant processes. It is effective longer than chlorine and forms lower levels of those byproducts.

In 1998, an EPA survey showed that more than 68 million people used water treated with it.

The Champlain Water District, which serves about 68,000 people in 12 Chittenden County towns, is the only Vermont district using it.

"The folks who are affected, there's no question they have medical problems," said Dr. Donald Swartz, medical director for the state Health Department. "That's not the issue. The question is whether the problems are being caused by the water or the chloramine, which are two different questions."

On Thursday, two environmental epidemiologist from CDC and two EPA engineers who specialize in drinking water toured the district's Peter L. Jacob Water Treatment Facility and planned home visits with 13 of those complaining about the water. More interviews and home visits were planned for Friday, with the team examining -- among other things -- the water systems in the homes.

The leader of the group, environmental epidemiologist Lorraine Backer, offered no guarantees that the investigation would get to the bottom of the dilemma. She said the comments of sufferers were illuminating, but that much more information was needed before any nexus can be drawn.

"We took away from it that there is a small group of people who have a wide range of issues who believe their health issues are associated with the drinking water," she said.