[UPDATED with New Links]
Drinking water disinfection is among the most important technological advances of humanity, yet like every major historic development it has a downside. Today, we run the risk of over-ingesting the disinfection chemicals used in public water treatment, along with their dangerous disinfection bi-products. It’s a bummer to know what’s really in our water – everything from naturally occurring radioactive contaminants to anti-depressants. Some toxins, such as chlorine, are relatively easy to filter out. Others, like chloramine, and disinfection biproducts (DBPs) such as chloroform (CHC13), are much slower to dissipate and far more difficult to remove. These are the toxins believed to cause cancer.
A Splash of Cold Water
“Chloramines are disinfectants used to treat drinking water. Chloramines are most commonly formed when ammonia is added to chlorine to treat drinking water. The typical purpose of chloramines is to provide longer-lasting water treatment as the water moves through pipes to consumers. This type of disinfection is known as secondary disinfection. Chloramines have been used by water utilities for almost 90 years, and their use is closely regulated. More than one in five Americans uses drinking water treated with chloramines.” [SOURCE: EPA]
“One sees the ‘lasts longer’ claim a lot,” states a source who has been working on the chloramine issue for the past six years. “But I think the ‘real’ reason is to meet EPA’s DBP requirements. If the only goal were to ‘last longer,’ the utility could add chlorine booster stations. Utilities that use chloramine risk nitrification, which results in the loss of the residual disinfectant. There are three kinds (species) of inorganic chloramines: monochloramine (NH2Cl), dichloramine (NHCl2), and trichloramine (NCl3). When chloramine is present in water, all three species are present, in proportions that depend on things like pH and the chlorine-to-nitrogen ratio.”
There are four regulated trihalomethanes and five regulated haloacetic acids, yet not everyone thinks of chloramine usage as being so cut and dry. The most important problem with using chloramine as the residual disinfectant in drinking water is that it can cause health problems:
Unfortunately, there’s only anecdotal evidence, however, when patients avoid chloraminated water, their symptoms improve; when they continue consumption and bathing, their health get worse. There has been no scientific studies of the health impacts of chloramine, but one organization is actively striving to filling the data void.
Citizens Concerned About Chloramine (CCAC) is a non-profit group based in San Francisco whose mission is “to raise the public’s level of awareness about chloramine and its health effects when used as a disinfectant in the water.” They state on their website that the EPA doesn’t have nearly enough data on chloramine to deem it safe.
EPA says it doesn’t know whether chloramine itself is carcinogenic. The agency provides an IRIS doc for chloramine on its website, however, EPA’s IRIS doc for NDMA, a DBP of chloramine, states that it’s a ‘probable human carcinogen.’ In reality, there are more than 600 DBPs of chloramine, and little is known about most of them.
The EPA website also has a few dozen, single-page pdfs about chloramine, but the summary paragraph optimistically repeats the facts that chloramine has been used in America for 90 years. According to Pennsylvania American Water Company (PWAC), a major proponent of chloramine usage, EPA’s one-in-five Americans estimate jumps to one-in-three in Pennsylvania. PAWC puts a lot of pro-chloramine info on its website, which I read with interest, sifting for facts and sniffing out spin. I’m naturally censorious whenever I see that much PR slathered all over a thing.
Turns out the stuff is banned in Tennessee, according to local TV news reporter, Chris Cato in Tap Water: Running the Risk, which aired on CBS news affiliate WSPA-TV, Anderson-Ashville in November, 2011.
“There’s too much unknown about Chloramine.” – Sherwin Smith, Tennessee Water Supply Division
The URLs That Refresh
Citizens Concerned About Chloramine (CCAC) is the place to start to learn more about this disinfection chemical. Chloramine usage is being challenged currently in California, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia and in Vermont, the groups Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE) along with Vermont People Concerned About Chloramine (PCAC) have joined CCAC in the national effort to challenge EPA regulations. In Pennsylvania, opposition is new, building along with expanding chloramine usage. You can learn more about the efforts to protect and inform the public statewide at ChloramineInfoCenter.net.
Many people are already experiencing serious side-effects from Chloramine exposure, yet water utilities like PAWC and Aqua PA’s Main Division are increasing their use of chloramine for a variety of reasons, one of which is because of its supposed staying power and subsequent ability to accomplish secondary disinfection. Yet, it’s exactly because these toxins are so long lasting that they are so dangerous. We’re more exposed to them. What’s worse, they’re easily born off in steamy, hot water vapor – like the kind you might use to unwind in the shower or improve baby’s cough.
Chloramine in drinking water causes a wide range of health problems. There’s more anecdotal evidence (cause-and-effect) for some of these symptoms than for others:
- Digestive & Gastric Disorders: severe stomach cramps, acid reflux, IBS
- Respiratory Problems: asthma, bronchitis, persistent coughing, wheezing, chronic sinus/nasal congestion
- Dermatolgical Disorders: Skin rashes, welts, blistering, dry skin, cracking, chapping, peeling, bleeding, burning sensations, scarring
- Mouth Ulcers
- Dry Eye, Dry Mouth
- People in chemotherapy should not drink chloramine-treated water
Those with suppressed immune systems (HIV Aids, chemotherapy patients, and infants under six months of age) must have their water boiled over ten minutes to kill the pathogens in the water.
Chloramine is also corrosive to many types of household plumbing, and it kills Aquarium fish, too. In fact, chloramine has the potential to cause massive fish kills. Chloromine does not dissipate like chlorine. If a water main breaks, chloramine would flow into the water supply via creeks and streams, at full strength, and result in serious fish kills.
Believe it or not, chloramine usage also raises national security concerns. “Chloramine does not react the same as chlorine to contaminants. A drop in chlorine levels signals a water facility that there is a contaminant in the water. Chloramine will not react the same way and will not provide that critical early alert. Manufacturers of terrorist detection systems have recommended that chloramine NOT be used as a disinfection in the water systems for this reason and have more strenuously recommended that they not be used in service areas where there are military bases as they are likely targets for terrorist activity,” according to chloramineinfocenter.net, citing Monochloramine Treatment Not As Effective In Protecting Drinking Water, ScienceDaily.com, March, 2007. CIC cites author, Dan Kroll,who also wrote this 2007 ‘poster session’ presentation, and this 2010 white paper, Security Consequences for Consideration When Switching From Free Chlorine to Monochloramine Disinfectants.
For a general, accessible overview of chloramine and its dangers, I recommend Protection or Poison? Chloramination of Drinking Water by Erin Brockovich (October, 2010): “The fact of the matter is chloramines are a terrible mistake. While utility companies often use chloramines as a matter of convenience, there are far safer alternatives. As a world-leading nation, we have to stop cutting corners where our health and safety are at stake.“
For the most comprehensive and current information about this issue, visit Citizens Concerned About Chlorine (CCAC) at chloramine.org
“It’s The Methane”
Former DEP Secretary John Hanger has said it.
Duke University said it.
Author Seamus McGraw has said it, again and again.
Methane contamination is a major problem with fracking.
“In the east one of the main problems is methane contamination,” McGraw said in a 2010 interview on failuremag.com.
“The truth in Dimock is that hydraulic fracturing did not cause frack fluids to contaminate water wells, but gas did migrate as a result of errors in drilling the gas wells,” Hanger stated on his own blog, Facts of the Day.
Duke studied the phenomena and concluded May 2011 that Methane levels are 17 times higher in water wells near hydrofracking sites and therefore required further study. Read more here.
Heinz Award winning ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. asserts that when you chlorinate water that is contaminated with methane you end up with disinfection by-products such as trihalomethanes, like chloroform, which are known to cause bladder and colon cancer.
Does more methane mean more chloramine usage in Pennsylvania water treatment plants?
It’s a possibility but not an inevitability, according to those who know much more about this subject than me. Many PA water companies, like AquaAmerica, use groundwater wells in addition to surface water.
One can only hope that the subject of Fracking, so new to the general lexicon, is raising public awareness of where our drinking water comes from, and precisely what’s in it. It may not be a particularly rosy picture now, but if the Upper Delaware is opened to shale gas drilling by the DRBC, or some undemocratic machinations of the Corbett administration, then our tap water will surely get a lot worse.
AquaAmerica: Pure Expedience
According to AquaPA’s 2011 Water Quality Report for the Main Division, which serves the great Philadelphia metropolitan area, chloramines were present at an average detection of 1.3ppm (parts per million), which is an increase from 1.1ppm in 2010. Average chloramine detection ranged from 1.0-1.4ppm. More importantly, the DBPs, Trihalomethanes ranged in detection from ND-78 ppb (parts per billion), the average detection was 33ppb; and Haloacetic acids ranged from none to 69ppb, with an average detection of 24ppb.