Opponents Slam Report on Chloramine
Jury stays out on chloramine treatment of drinking water
Published: Thursday, January 24, 2008
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
Suburban Chittenden County residents who worry about the use of chloramine to disinfect their drinking water will find no answers in a report by federal health investigators who conducted a four-day inquiry last fall.
Nevertheless, a state Senate committee is exploring possible ways -- including a ban or moratorium on chloramine use -- to provide relief to residents who blame the chemical for a variety of health symptoms.
"I'm struggling with it. I feel these people need relief, but I don't want to over-react and do something the water district said would be worse," Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, said Wednesday.
Champlain Water District began adding chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, to the water served to its 68,000 customers in April 2006. The water district and the Health Department say the chemical is federally approved and has no proven health effects.
Since the switch, at least 74 residents have called the water district or the state Department of Health to report health symptoms.
In September, investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited the water district at the Health Department's request, held a public meeting and interviewed nearly 50 people who had complained about symptoms.
The CDC's five-page report summarizes the reported health problems but warns, "These results cannot be interpreted as representing the rates of symptoms, health conditions or complaints of the overall community."
Overall, the report had a skeptical tone about the Vermont complaints, although it also noted that "data gaps remain about the potential health effects of using chloramines for large scale water disinfection."
The team recommended a more rigorous study and collaboration with the state "to develop next steps in addressing this issue of community concern."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of chloramines, and some communities have been using the treatment for decades.
Despite complaints from laypeople, the department's survey of physicians last year failed to find a link between chloramine and health problems. A CDC team came to Vermont in September at the request of the Department of Health to address "community concerns." The visit never was intended as a full-blown research investigation, Health Commissioner Sharon Moffatt said Tuesday.
In its five-page report, the federal team said its days of interviews and home visits in Vermont provided no reliable results because the interviewees were self-selected sufferers, not a broad random sample of CWD customers.
The investigators also described the activities of a local group, People Concerned about Chloramine, in words that angered some advocates.
People Concerned About Chloramine "mobilized an anti-chloramine campaign," "implemented a mass media campaign," "coached survey respondents" and in one case "prompted the respondent to provide specific answers to our questions" during a home visit, the CDC investigators wrote.
"I was very disappointed with the report," said Ellen Powell of South Burlington, a leader of People Concerned About Chloramine. "It seemed to blame us for the fact they can't come up with anything."
At Vermonters for a Clean Environment, director Annette Smith expressed anger.
"It is disturbing to see the CDC trashing the citizens group," she said. "This report would not have come about if not for these citizens."
"People are suffering. We are at a loss to understand how our federal government could encourage a large water system to move to a disinfection system that has clear health effects, yet they haven't done the science to see if it is safe," she said.
The Department of Health and the CDC have not concluded that chloramine causes "clear health effects."
Racine seeks solutions
Moffatt, the health commissioner, said new scientific studies are coming forward on chloramines, and she will ask the CDC for help in analyzing their implications. She also will discuss the possibility of a more rigorous survey with the CDC.
In the meantime, she said, people with health concerns should see their doctors to obtain a diagnosis and to rule out other possible causes.
At the Statehouse, Racine said he has become convinced there is a problem for at least some people. Though the evidence is anecdotal, he said he was persuaded by the accounts of people whose symptoms cleared up when they stopped using CWD water.
He said his committee might simply recommend the health department do more analysis, as the CDC recommended.
But he added, "The people who are suffering are looking for a ban or moratorium. That is something we have to consider."
Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or cpage @bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com
WHAT ARE CHLORAMINES?
Compounds of chlorine and ammonia, used to kill bacteria in drinking water. Chloramines are more stable and last longer than chlorine and produce less odor and taste.
WHICH TOWNS ARE AFFECTED?
Champlain Water District supplies water to Colchester Fire Districts 1 and 3, Malletts Bay Water Co. and the area around Exit 16 of Interstate 89; Essex, Essex Junction, Jericho village, Milton, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski