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Complaints Surface About New Water Disinfection Method

Local Matters


Published August 2, 2006 at 11:39 a.m.

SOUTH BURLINGTON - Nancy Fitzgerald says she can't shower or wash her face in her tap water unless the chemical disinfectant chloramine, which is added to the water to make it safer, has been filtered out. "I'm a healthy person," says Fitzgerald, 50. "This is just weird."

Fitzgerald says her problems with her water began in May, when after taking a shower she noticed her eyes were burning and bloodshot. She didn't think much of it until it began happening repeatedly. On another occasion, she reports, the water stung her skin as if she had sunburn, and caused her nose to run incessantly. While Fitzgerald was away on a week's vacation, the symptoms disappeared, only to return when she began to shower at home again. Then she started to "connect the dots," she says.

Fitzgerald had read a letter to the editor from Ellen Powell of South Burlington, who was complaining of similar problems with her water. Powell has formed People Concerned About Chloramines, a citizens' group that claims various health problems that have recently arisen in the area are caused by the chloriminated water. At least two dozen people have contacted the group complaining of symptoms such as bloodshot eyes, rashes, burning skin, sinus and nasal congestion, coughing, wheezing and choking.

The Champlain Water District is Vermont's largest water supplier, serving about 68,000 people in 12 municipal water systems throughout Chittenden County, including Winooski and South Burlington. The district's vast water-distribution network includes 55 miles of water mains and another 500 miles of connector pipes to homes and businesses. In April, CWD was the first in the state to switch from the use of "free chlorine" to a "chloramine residual." Chloramines don't dissipate as quickly as chlorine.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that public water systems switch to the use of chloramine as the "best available technology" for reducing the presence of so-called disinfection byproducts, which can be harmful to human health. Disinfection byproducts such as trihalomethanes have been linked to certain types of cancer as well as reproductive and developmental problems.

Mike Barsotti, CWD's director of water quality and production, says the switch to chloramine has been "amazingly smooth" and has already resulted in a 44 percent reduction in trihalomethanes and a 63 percent reduction in haloacidic acids, another harmful disinfection byproduct.

Barsotti also notes that his office has received about a dozen complaints from the public since the changeover in April. However, he's unconvinced that chloramine is to blame for these health problems. "I believe at this point that that number is not statistically significant," he says. "I also believe that they haven't been verified by a doctor, which is important to the health department."

Nevertheless, Barsotti says that CWD is taking every complaint seriously. Anyone who is experiencing problems with their water is being asked to complete a questionnaire, which is then forwarded to the Vermont Department of Health. As of last week, the department had received 15 of those forms, as well as three direct phone complaints. State epidemiologist Bill Bress says he plans to meet with representatives from CWD and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation this week to discuss the matter. But Bress won't speculate about what's causing the problems.

Barsotti asserts that chlorimination is a safe and effective method of water disinfection, currently being used for about 40 million people in the United States and 8 million in Canada. He points to a study conducted by the San Francisco Department of Public Health after its public water system, which serves 2.4 million people, switched over to chloramine.

That study, which investigated a small number of reported complaints, found that the symptoms were "heterogeneous," that is, possibly caused by a variety of other underlying or preexisting factors. The report concluded there wasn't enough evidence to support a more in-depth study or a reconsideration of the use of chloramine as San Francisco's water-treatment method.

But not everyone is convinced that enough is known about chloramine to draw definitive conclusions about its safety. Martin Wolf is a chemist with Burlington-based Seventh Generation, the nation's leading producer of environmentally friendly household products. As director of product and environmental technology, Wolf's job is to evaluate the products Seventh Generation sells to ensure that they're safe, effective and nontoxic, and reflect the company's core values.

Several months ago, Wolf, who lives in Shelburne, was contacted by People Concerned About Chloramines and asked for his opinion on chloramine. Wolf - who emphasizes he's speaking on his own behalf and not as a company spokesperson - says he researched the matter and discovered that there's "precious little" in the scientific literature about the health effects of chronic or sub-chronic chloramine exposure.

"I think that every concerned citizen reasonably should ask, 'Is it appropriate to change over to this disinfection system when so little is known about it?'" he says. Wolf doesn't agree that the number of people experiencing problems with their water is "statistically insignificant."

"It's reasonable to assume that at the very low levels at which they're present - 2-and-a-half parts per million - [chloramines] are going to be safe, until you consider that you're exposing tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people to them," he adds. "And then those people who have unique body chemistries or sensitivities begin to show up."

Wolf says he was able to find only two studies on the carcinogenicity of chloramine. One showed no apparent carcinogenic effect in male rats; the other showed a possible carcinogenic effect in female rats. The EPA's own literature notes that no health studies have been done on the relationship between chloramine and skin or respiratory symptoms. As Wolf points out, "a mouse, a rat or a rabbit has difficulty telling you what it's feeling."

For her part, Fitzgerald admits that she didn't see a physician about her symptoms. Since she only experienced problems when bathing in her own home, she consulted several water experts, then decided to invest in a water-filtration system for her entire house. Apparently, it made a big difference - as did the $1500 price tag. "In terms of my budget," Fitzgerald says, "I needed that like a hole in my head."