Questioning authority: RWSA chloramine plan stirs water fears

Perhaps if the agenda had said, "Addition of strychnine to water supply," the matter might have gotten a lot more attention than it did a year ago when the water authority okayed the addition of a chemical that once sent lead levels skyrocketing in Washington, D.C.

"Chloramine" may sound like a mouthwash or a tasty new chewing gum, but even some of those who approved adding it to the water were unaware of the damage it had wreaked in other communities.

"It was brought to us as EPA requirements for upgrades," says Albemarle Supervisor Ken Boyd, who sits on the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. He was told most of the country uses chloramines as a water disinfectant– and it was the cheapest alternative. "I had no idea there was all this controversy."

What Boyd says he didn't know was what chloramines– a mixture of chlorine and ammonia– did in Washington, D.C. They were added to the capital city's water system without the necessary corrosion inhibitors and began leaching lead out of pipes and into the public. Copper pipes started turning up with pinhole leaks. More ominously, children started showing astronomical levels of the toxic element. Lead exposure has been linked to life-long setbacks in behavioral health and cognition, as well as to kidney damage, high blood-pressure, and other harms.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, chloramines have been in use for 90 years, mostly without any disastrous health, water infrastructure, and environmental consequence, although fish may die when there is a spill.

"About 40 percent of Americans, and 76 percent of Virginians today drink and use chloraminated water, and the overall track record of these utilities is highly successful," says RWSA executive director Tom Frederick in an emailed response to questions from the Hook. Charlottesville and Albemarle's drinking water is safe, assures Frederick.

So why the change?

"[B]ecause EPA is changing the standards for byproducts of disinfection, and we are required by law to meet their requirements," says Frederick, who plans to convert to chloramines in 2014.

Water disinfection is a two-step process. Currently the system uses chlorine for both primary and secondary disinfection, according to the RWSA's primer on this topic. Chlorine is a highly effective disinfectant, and it dissipates after 24 to 48 hours. However, it also creates byproducts, and upcoming EPA byproduct standards are the reason that Rivanna cites for going to chloramines.

"[W]e have a legal duty to comply with EPA’s regulations," says Frederick. "Several citizens have contacted us who like the water now and do not want the new EPA regulations, and we have suggested they can express their views to their Congressmen and Senators who establish what EPA is responsible for."

That's what Boyd did. When contacted by the Hook June 7, he says he (along with City Councilor Kathy Galvin) had just gotten off a conference call with Senator Mark Warner and Representative Robert Hurt "to see if we can get some relief from the EPA."

Some officials remain skeptical that chloramines are necessary to meet EPA standards.

"I've seen the data," says City Councilor Dede Smith. "My take is, do we even need to do this?"

Part of the change at the EPA is how the byproduct numbers are averaged. Before, test results throughout the whole water supply would be averaged to meet acceptable EPA levels. The new regulations assert that individual test locations meet the specifications over four quarters, rather than be averaged in with lower numbers elsewhere in the system.

"You can chart where we've violated the standards," says Smith. "It almost never happens."

Smith points to a "little spate of violations in very specific locations" in 2011, all in the northern part of the system. "That tells me it's the North Fork Rivanna Station," she says.

"Maybe it should have a carbon filtration system," offers Smith, noting that Crozet and Scottsville will get such systems and be spared the change to chloramines because those two water systems don't have 24-hour monitoring.

"The benefit of carbon filtration is it doesn't add things to the water," says Smith. "It takes things out."

However, carbon filtration would have cost over $18 million in capital expense, according to Rivanna; and that's why the water authority went for the cheaper chloramines and added just $9.3 million to its capital budget, half of which will cover granular activated carbon for Scottsville and Crozet.

"My sense is if carbon filtration is good enough for Crozet and Scottsville, it's good enough for the urban water system," says City Councilor Dave Norris. "The cost is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars to do other improvements."

He's referring to the controversial Ragged Mountain dam and nine-mile uphill pipeline to pump water from the Rivanna Reservoir to fill it.

"When you're making such a major change, you need a thorough review and thorough public input," says Norris.

"The new EPA rules require compliance deadlines that do not allow for an extended period of public review, nevertheless, two months were provided for public input between March and May 2011," explains Frederick. "All of RWSA’s meetings and agendas are publicly advertised to provide opportunity for review and input."

"I can't fault the public because I didn't know, either," says Boyd, who joined the Rivanna board in voting unanimously to go forward with the chloramine option May 24, 2011. He says he's suggested to Frederick that in the future, the board be made aware of "favorable" and "unfavorable" conditions of potentially controversial agenda items.

Julia Whiting, a Charlottesville emergency room physician who notes that Poughkeepsie, New York, recently reversed its switch to chloramines,  describes the water authority's claims that the EPA is pushing the change as "disingenuous."

She calls chloramine byproducts "horribly toxic" and much worse than chlorine byproducts. She says that fish and "everything down to earthworms" were killed in two Virginia chloramine spills.

"It's a classic in chemistry," says Charlottesville medical researcher Lorrie Delehanty. "Never mix chlorine and ammonia. That's what they're going to do and put chloramines in the water."

"Chloramines come in several different forms, depending on the ratio of chlorine to ammonia," responds Rivanna's Frederick. "Not all forms are recommended." He says the monochloramine used in drinking water "is very safe, stable, and effective."

Despite Rivanna and EPA assurances on the safety of chloramines, some citizens remain dubious and have started a petition to keep them out of the water supply.

"We are hearing from people all over the country," says Supervisor Boyd. "And in this world of the Internet, you can get all sorts of information."

Local officials will hold a public forum at 6pm on June 21 in the Albemarle County Office Building.

"Rather than the advocates, I'm going to listen to experts that aren't trying to push a certain view," says Boyd. "It's a Solomon's decision."

23 comments

Chloramines are very toxic and very difficult to remove from our water. -Chloramines cannot be removed by passing water through the same activated carbon filters used for chlorine removal because these filters are too small at their designed flow rates. Boiling water or using Reverse Osmosis does not remove Chloramines. Our children and our families will be forced to drink and bathe in this toxic chemical. Awful.

""I can't fault the public because I didn't know, either," says Boyd, who joined the Rivanna board in voting unanimously to go forward with the chloramine option May 24, 2011. He says he's suggested to Frederick that in the future, the board be made aware of "favorable" and "unfavorable" conditions of potentially controversial agenda items."

How about we have a board with members who are capable of and take the time to educate themselves regarding the issues they vote on before they vote? As Boyd himself said "in this world of the Internet, you can get all sorts of information." If Boyd was too lazy, or didn't care enough, or is not capable of understanding the information available, then why on earth has he been charged with making important decisions about subjects that he knows nothing about?

Chloramine can cause skin, digestive and/or respiratory problems. I cannot use our tap water--period--because I got horrible skin rashes after our water was disinfected with chloramine. There have been NO health studies done to show that this chemical is ok. There are better ways to meet the EPA standards; please consider them.

I live in the Poughkeepsie, NY water district, and had to live with chloramine in my tap water from October 2006 through September 2011. The skin rashes I had from washing with my water were more like painful blisters that got worse with every shower. Inhaling the steam from hot showers caused me to have problems breathing,and drinking the water or cooking with it caused me to have constant heartburn. I wound up having to lug 3-gallon jugs of bottled water so I could heat it to wash with, and buying bottled water to drink and cook with. People in our area had to make costly plumbing repairs due to chloramine corroding their pipes.

Poughkeepsie had to finally stop using chloramine because from 2007 onwards we began having a serious problem with lead leaching into our water supply. Our water department tried to resolve the lead issue by adding chemical corrosion inhibitors to our water supply and more chemicals to improve the pH of our water - all this in order to be able to continue using with chloramine. But nothing they tried was able to remedy the situation, and in 2011 they made the decision to stop using chloramine.

If chloramine corrodes metal pipes - then what does it do to the living cells and tissue in our bodies?

The geenie is out of the bottle

Glad to see officials coming to their senses about chloramine! One thing, though:“.....monochloramine used in drinking water "is very safe……."” That statement is absolutely not confirmable by the EPA, because no one has done any research on the respiratory, skin or digestive effects of monochloramine in drinking water (the very symptoms people all over the country are experiencing after switching to monochloramine).

The EPA has the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). They use it to determine how toxic chemicals are, by looking at all available data on the chemical in question. READ the monochloramine IRIS: http://www.epa.gov/iris/subst/0644.htm

The EPA has encouraged water utilities to do the quick and cheap monochloramine fix to meet compliance with their disinfection by-product (DBP) rule, without ever doing any respiratory, skin or digestive studies on monochloraminated tap water. NO epidemiological studies exist, and cancer studies on monochloramine are so limited that EPA cannot make a determination, although there is evidence that monochloramine itself causes cancer.

Until recently, chloramine’s DBPs were mostly unknown. But with this EPA DBP rule driving more utilities to convert to monochloramine, scientific researchers have now started looking for chloramine’s DBPs. They have recently found that many of chloramine’s DBPs- ALL of which are unregulated, by the way- are so toxic that they make chlorine’s DBPs look like VITAMINS! They’re not done looking yet.

There are two reasons pro-chloramine officials give for saying monochloramine “is very safe”. 1. There are no studies saying it isn’t and 2. Chloramine has been used in Denver since the Stone Age so it must be safe. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Why does the EPA insist upon monochloramine’s safety with nothing to back that up, while there are untold thousands and likely millions of chloramine sufferers all over? Don’t want to admit they made a mistake? Embarrassed? What?

I live in Vermont. Chloramine came into my water in 4/2006. Between my first shower, a few days after chloramine came in, and the beginning of July, I developed skin, eye, respiratory, and digestive symptoms (chronic rashes/extremely dry skin, chronic pain in chest, chronic burning/stinging eyes, non-stop belly ache). All of these went away when I stopped drinking, cooking with, brushing my teeth with, and bathing in my chloraminated tap water.
For the past 6 years this is how I use water: I go through 35 gals. per month of spring water and was forced to purchase a membership at a local health club in a town that still uses chlorine in the public water supply.

It's not just me. I co-founded a citizens group to fight chloramine in my water district, People Concerned About Chloramine. We documented around 300 people in my water district ho developed skin, eye, digestive, and/or respiratory symptoms after chloramine was put in our water.

THIS IS NO JOKE.

Leave it to the RWSA to create an unreliable and dangerous water source.

Oh I almost forgot, expensive.

If you ever do get more rain, you won't have reservoirs to store it in.

And don't forget that chloramine is part of a government conspiracy to turn us all into super-soldiers (X-Files, Season 9, Episodes 1 & 2). Just kidding! Chloramine is no more or less harmful than the chlorine added to drinking water; that is to say, it's not harmful at all. In fact, it provides protection from harm by inactivating any biological contaminants that may make their way into the drinking water. By using carbon filtration, which this article seems to recommend, you remove that function and the water is susceptible to biological contamination by any number of microbes. Chloramine is a good choice of disinfectant in many instances where compliance with the Disinfection By-Products Rule is a concern, such as the RWSA.

If these symptoms are real and provable, and the locality and water authority will not do anything about it, how about a lawsuit? Money talks.

Harvard grad Dr. Andrew Weil is very concerned about the use of Chloramines in the water we drink...

http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/id/QAA400130

Thanks to the city council and RWSA board members who are taking a serious look at the chloramine issue. RWSA Executive Director Frederick is only concerned about the water quality as it leaves the treatment plant. The chemical soup that finally reaches your house is none of his concern. I'm sure most of you reading this will be shocked and dismayed at hearing this. So were the hundreds of people in the San Francisco Bay Area who were sickened, lost pet fish, and had to replace broken water heaters and pipes after chloramine was put into our drinking water. Our pleas for relief have fallen on deaf ears.
RWSA board member Boyd says he will listen to the experts at the public forum. I hope he will be looking for phrases such as, "best available science" and remember that if there is no science (see the IRIS document mentioned above) then that is "the best available science".
When Mr. Frederick says monochloramine is "very safe, stable, and effective", be aware that it has not been proven safe for human consumption, it is so stable that it cannot be removed by people who are sensitive to it, and it is the very least effective disinfectant on the USEPA approved list of secondary
disinfectants.
The RWSA board's decision should not be a Solomon's decision but a common sense, no-brainer, to put more money up front to protect people's health now and in the future.

Reply to Patrick Vowell.
Who do you think you're trying to fool? Chloramine has not been proven to be less harmful than chlorine - except to bacteria and viruses. The carbon filtration is to be used before chlorination to remove the organic precursors that form the THMs and HAAs thus removing the need for chloramine and allowing the continued use of chlorine as the secondary disinfectant.

"Chloramines come in several different forms, depending on the ratio of chlorine to ammonia," responds Rivanna's Frederick. "Not all forms are recommended." He says the monochloramine used in drinking water "is very safe, stable, and effective."

Is Tom Frederick really this ignorant? The term "chloramine" is a collective term. Monochloramine speciates to Dichloramine to Trichloramine, and they go back and forth, depending on pH, temperature, and other conditions. Trichloamines are the most toxic, and least effective as a biocide. It's the Trichloramine that causes the severe skin rashes in the shower in some people. Sure, the RWSA is going to just put monochloramine in the water. That's the ticket!

I recommend this website for lots of information on the truth about chloramine: chloramine dot org. (I had to spell it that way in order to get this to post.

Go to www.chloramine.org for more information on chloramine from people who LIVE WITH IT.

Harvard Grad Dr. Andrew Weil - From his website:

"Like chlorine, however, chloramine is toxic. The EPA states that neither poses health concerns to humans at the levels used for drinking water disinfection, but even at those levels, both can harm fish and amphibians. Chlorine produces by-products that contribute to cancer and birth defects and, in itself, may contribute to heart disease, but at least it dissipates rapidly when water is boiled or left standing and exposed to air. Chloramine does not. So, if you have an aquarium and your water is disinfected with chloramines, you'll have to treat it with a dechlorinator, available at pet shops, to prevent the water from killing your fish, and think about whether you want to drink water that can kill marine animals."

Thanks Ellen, very informative!

@b17, "If Boyd was too lazy, or didn't care enough, or is not capable of understanding the information available, then why on earth has he been charged with making important decisions about subjects that he knows nothing about?" That is the result of living in a democracy of the people, for the people, and by the people. That's why it is more important that citizens participate in government decision-making rather than just electing people to be all-knowing. Mr. Boyd has a full time job as does all of the other elected officials except Kristin Szakos. They also have families. It is the responsibility of the people to provide the information to these officials.
Unfortunately, until a small group of citizens started questioning the Ragged Mountain dam project, Rivanna has had a history of acting as an Authority, which it is. City Council and the Board of Supervisors were merely informed of its decisions. We need to get rid of Authorities.

FOR ALL THOSE WITH QUESTIONS AND CONCERNS ABOUT OUR DRINKING WATER:

1)Come to a public information session hosted by local citizens opposed to chloramines, Monday, June 18, 6:30-8:45, McIntire Room of Central Library, and decide for yourself whether there is something to worry about. There will be a presentation followed by a question and answer session. Dr. Julia Whiting and Lori Delehanty, guests on this informative Coy Barefoot show on Chloramines ( http://www.wina.com/play_window.php?audioType=Episode&audioId=5871519 ) will be two of the presenters.

2) Of course, also come to the RWSA hosted Chloramine information session on June 21, 6-8 PM at Lane Auditorium. Be aware, though, that the panel may not be balanced, and each panelist will only be able to speak briefly, and that time will only allow a limited number of questions from the public.

We will be there, thanks Joanna

One thing I am not clear on: Has this decision already been made? That is, is there any possibility that this decision will be altered following these meetings?

HookReader: RWSA DID make this decision in February, without public notification or input, however, they are getting a lot of "feedback" from concerned citizens, and will revisit the decision this summer. Write your elected officials: rwsaboardmembers@rivanna.org (Albemarle) bos@albmarle.org (City) council@charlottesville.org . Show up to the meeting on 6/21 at Lane auditorium. Write letters to the editor. Sign the petition: http://signon.org/sign/rwsa-do-not-use-chloramines?source=c.em.cp&r_by=1...