Perhaps because only a small minority — a few hundred among the Bay Area's millions — have reported serious reactions, the Environmental Protection Agency last month all but shrugged off pleas for more testing, despite valid reports of horrible reactions to the additive.
Chloramine came into our pristine Hetch Hetchy water supply in 2004 when the EPA decided that chlorine, the disinfectant that had protected municipal water for many years, wasn't good enough anymore. The agency called on water districts to ramp up disinfection efforts, and many districts found chloramine, a chemical combination of chlorine and ammonia, to be cheap and effective at killing bacteria without producing certain harmful byproducts.
The San Francisco Public Utility Commission ordered the switch three years ago, and that's when people who receive treated water, including residents of Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley and Woodside, began showing symptoms such as skin rashes, painful digestive tract inflammation, and asthma-like respiratory problems.
Eventually these residents formed an organization, headed by Menlo Park resident Denise Johnson-Kula, called Citizens Concerned About Chloramine, which is seeking to convince the SFPUC and EPA to test chloramine to make sure it is safe.
Actions by this group have brought about two revelations that we find alarming:
1. Apparently, the EPA recommended chloramine without fully testing its potential impact on the population, instead saying that chloramine had a long record of safe use in other areas of the U.S.
2. After Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, requested that the EPA meet with local residents on Sept. 5, the agency claimed it cannot take any action until health concerns are reported by the Centers for Disease Control or the medical community.
Bruce Macler of the EPA's San Francisco office told a reporter for the Voice, the Almanac's sister paper in Mountain View: "As far as we know there is no evidence there is a problem with public health. When we talk about what's safe, we talk about generally safe. It is possible people are affected. Medical folks have to start saying this is an issue."
This may happen in Vermont, where enough residents reported problems to cause the state legislature there to hold two days of hearings and to prompt the CDC to take a closer look. Back in the Bay Area, the citizens group has identified about 400 people who report symptoms that, in some cases, mimic allergic reactions when exposed to chloramine.
Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the byproducts of chloramine are much more toxic than those of chlorine. Dr. Michael Plewa, a professor of genetics at the University of Illinois who coauthored a study of tap water disinfection byproducts, said that byproducts from chloramine are the most toxic he has ever seen. He recommends a switch back to chlorine.
At the very least, the EPA and SFPUC should be bending over backward to look into claims of adverse reactions, and our elected officials should push to make sure that happens. More testing should begin immediately to sort out just how toxic this substance is.
What if those affected are just the canaries in the coal mine? Those of us not affected today could still show symptoms in the future.
Without question, a full range of tests should have been conducted before chloramine was put into our drinking water. It is unconscionable that the government agencies charged with protecting public health are instead putting up roadblocks in what appears to be a very legitimate concern.