MONTPELIER -Chittenden County lawmakers were asking the Vermont Department of Health and the Champlain Water District tough questions last week about a new chemical disinfectant being used in Vermont's largest public water system. Some residents claim the additive is making them sick and have asked state health officials to get more aggressive in investigating their complaints.
Last week, the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare heard two afternoons of testimony on the use of chloramines, a chemical additive that CWD first began putting in the water in April 2006. CWD is the first and only water system in Vermont to have switched to chloramines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends chloramines as "the best available technology" for reducing disinfection byproducts, which can be dangerous to human health.
Since then, however, more than 130 residents have come forward with a range of health complaints - including burning and bloodshot eyes, skin rashes, difficulty breathing and chest pains - that they claim are caused by exposure to chloramines. Many of those people have also contacted Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) and Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden), who chairs the committee and called the hearing.
Rebecca Reno of South Burlington is founder of the local citizens' group, People Concerned About Chloramines (PCAC). She told the committee that she no longer drinks, bathes in or cooks with her tap water because of the problems it causes her. Reno also said she and others have complained to CWD and the health department, but officials have been "dismissive" of their grievances.
In fact, VDH epidemiologist Dr. Bill Bress, in a letter to the editor in the November 1, 2006, issue of Seven Days, touted the safety of chloramines and accused Reno and her group of "campaigning against the CWD." But, as Reno testified, there are no epidemiologic studies addressing the potential adverse effects of chloramines on human health.
"I believe the CWD made a mistake with chloramines, and I don't know why they're digging in their heels and looking the other way," Reno said. "I believe that if they were truly proactive, they would broaden their vision to include human suffering and the future health of Vermonters."
CWD officials have said that chloramines are a preferable form of secondary disinfectant because they dissipate more slowly than chlorine. They say this is important in CWD's vast distribution network, which serves 12 municipal water systems over an area of 70 square miles.
VDH officials told the committee they've received only about 40 complaints from the public about chloramines. Acting Health Commissioner Sharon Moffatt told the committee Thursday that when her department first began receiving complaints, officials reached out to medical providers in Chittenden County. They never heard back about any unexplained ailments that might be attributable to chloramines exposure.
But Committee Chair Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) sounded skeptical. "I, for one, in my 16 years in this building, haven't heard a single complaint about our water until this year," he said. "It feels like something is going on."
Senator Lyons said she believes they followed the letter of the law in assessing the consequences of using chloramines. But she wants to be sure the decision was the right one. She also wants to determine whether, in the future, the state health department should have a more formal role in reviewing what gets added to water supplies.
"At some point you have to ask, What's right for the state of Vermont, to maintain the very highest protection of our water quality?" Lyons said. "Beyond that, how do we ensure the public trust is there? If you lose public trust, you lose a great deal."
Racine acknowledged the health department's need to rely on conclusive research when assessing public-health threats. However, he noted "a pattern of complacency" and a "passive approach" by the health department in response to such worries.
"When you're dealing with public health, you ought to be taking these anecdotal concerns more seriously," Racine added. "I just wish they'd done it six months ago without having to be pushed by a committee of the legislature."
According to Racine, VDH and CWD officials agreed to "get very aggressive" in talking to people with water concerns. They will also ask that anyone who has visited a doctor because of a suspected reaction to water sign a privacy waiver, to help officials understand the causes of such problems.
RELATED STORY: Seven Days investigated chloramines prior to their introduction a year ago [March 29, 2006, "Champlain Water District Switches Its Chemical Mix"].