Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva, in a screen shot captured from Facebook video
With the election closing in, Mayor Anthony Silva continues to question the use of chloramines to disinfect Stockton’s drinking water despite assurances from multiple levels of government that the chemical is generally safe.
“We haven’t finished the discussion on chloramines,” Silva says in a video posted to his Facebook page on Tuesday. “Do we know it’s truly safe for us to drink? Other cities out there disagree. I would like to look at more research. I would like the City Council to revisit this. Right now I don’t know if it’s safe for us to drink, or if we should be drinking bottled water.”
I responded to the mayor’s post with a link to some chloramines information from the Environmental Protection Agency, but my response appears to have been deleted. So I’ll repost it here. In the words of the feds:
“Water that contains chloramines and meets EPA regulatory standards is safe for:
• Other household uses.”
Here’s the reality: While no water treatment method is perfect, chloramines are not an issue of serious concern in the mainstream scientific community. Just a few weeks ago, I “attended” a webinar on chloramines hosted by the American Water Works Association — a nonprofit research group funded by water agencies — where experts addressed some of the very concerns that Silva, Erin Brockovich and other advocates have raised.
Among them, that chloramines cause health problems like mouth ulcers, skin rashes, digestive problems, etc.
“There is very little peer-reviewed information to support any of the claims,” said Ben Stanford, an environmental scientist and director of applied research with New York-based Hazen and Sawyer, an engineering firm.
Stanford said he didn’t want to be dismissive of people who have reported such symptoms.
However: “If we’ve got 45 percent of people on public water supplies — or 100 million Americans — being exposed to chloraminated water, we just simply don’t see those massive rates of issues out there,” he said.
This finding isn’t limited to industry-funded groups like the AWWA. As I reported last January after the chloramine issue exploded literally overnight in Stockton, the federal Centers for Disease Control went to Vermont in 2007 to investigate possible health problems after a similar community controversy ignited in Chittenden County. You can read the CDC’s final report here.
Unfortunately, the feds learned that anti-chloramine advocates had been “coaching” Vermont residents, telling them that their health problems were related to the drinking water and prompting them how to respond to investigators’ questions. So the results of the study were considered biased.
The controversy didn’t end when the CDC left town. So, a few years later, Vermont’s state toxicologist conducted a review of all the available scientific literature on chloramines and human health impacts. She found that chloramines use “is not likely to result in adverse health effects” and that the only reason a larger-scale epidemiological study hadn’t been done was that there wasn’t enough underlying science to justify the time and expense.
So what’s good about chloramines?
Chloramines are a weaker disinfectant than chlorine, which Stockton has relied upon for decades, but they stay in the pipes longer and are more effective at reducing concentrations of cancer-causing disinfection byproducts. Mark LeChevallier, AWWA’s chief environmental officer, used the ol’ tortoise and the hare analogy: Chlorine is the fast-moving but over-reactive hare, while chloramines are the slow and plodding (but ultimately victorious) tortoise.
Chloramines can form other potentially harmful byproducts which are not yet regulated, but here’s the important part: Water systems that switch from chlorine to chloramines, as Stockton just did, have seen an overall decrease in byproducts, LeChevallier said
As for lead, while Washington, D.C. suffered through a spike in lead contamination after converting to chloramines, that was at least partially a result of the city’s older lead pipes (which Stockton doesn’t have) and failure to put an adequate corrosion control plan in place.
“Many factors influence metal release from pipes,” LeChevallier said. “The type and amount of disinfectant is one of them. But it’s far more complex than saying, ‘If you switch to chloramines you’re going to have a lead problem.’”
Chloramines can eat away at rubber plumbing fixtures, but so can chlorine. Parts that are resistant to both disinfectants are now widely available.
Both are toxic to fish. Chloramines persist longer in the water and may be a greater threat as a result, but still, reports of chloramine-related fish kills in rivers and streams appear to be fairly rare even though large cities might experience hundreds of water line breaks in a single year, Stanford said.
“The key is not to minimize this and say, ‘You’ll never have this in your city,’” he said. “But what’s the risk?… What we are doing is evaluating and balancing risks and tradeoffs. There is no perfect solution anywhere.”
I’m certainly no expert on water treatment or water chemistry. But on the science of chloramines, Stockton’s mayor is swimming upstream.