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December 15, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, December 15, 2004

County seeks assurance on safety of chloramine County seeks assurance on safety of chloramine (December 15, 2004)in drinking water

By Marion Softky

Almanac Staff Writer

Ever since San Francisco switched disinfectants in the drinking water for 2.4 million people last February, a number of people -- primarily on the Peninsula -- have suffered skin rashes and other health problems. They blame these on the new water, which substitutes chloramine for chlorine as disinfectant.

Responding to these complaints, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on December 7 asked the organization of California's health officers for an official position on the use of chloramine in drinking water. The San Francisco Public Health Department has already made a similar request to the California Conference of Local Health Officers.

"Although chloramine has been around for decades, the extent to which it is potentially harmful to certain people is unknown," said board president Mark Church.

Chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, is a more stable disinfectant, lasts longer in water, and produces lower levels of possibly carcinogenic byproducts than chlorine, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

As with chlorine, water with chloramine must be further treated before being used by kidney dialysis patients, by fish and amphibians in aquariums, and in some industrial and biotechnology applications.

The SFPUC, which provides Sierra water to San Francisco and 29 water agencies in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties, introduced chloramine to meet stiffened federal requirements for water quality, said Public Relations Officer Lillian Brown.

Installing the equipment for chloramine cost more than $30 million, Ms. Brown said. There are new treatment plants at Sunol in the East Bay and in San Bruno. In addition, a new plant and pipeline at the Pulgas Water Temple take the chloramine out of the water before storing it in the Crystal Springs Reservoir, and put it back in when the water is delivered.

Chloramine is widely used around the country, Ms. Brown said. Denver has used it since 1917. Southern California, including Los Angeles and San Diego, have been using it for about a decade. And most other Bay Area Water agencies, including Santa Clara Valley Water District, use it. "It's been around a long time," she said.

Nevertheless, the dozen or so people who spoke to the county supervisors in Redwood City were convinced that the new water was giving them rashes, welts, and asthma attacks.

"If this stuff corrodes pipelines, what does it do for kidneys?" asked one speaker, brandishing three bottles of cruddy water.

Several speakers complained their rashes and asthmas started when the water changed, and went away when they used bottled water or left the area.

"I experienced severe asthma every time I showered," said another speaker. "I tried showering in Gilroy -- no reaction."

The board voted unanimously to ask the California health officers to take a position.

Dr. Scott Morrow, San Mateo County's public health officer, and chair of the California Conference of Local Health Officers, expects to complete a review of information on chloramine and take a position by next spring.

"You have to disinfect water," he said. "Chloramine has been used all over the country quite well."
Public health perspective

Epidemiologist June Weintraub of the San Francisco Department of Public Health is trying to put the complaints into perspective.

So far, there have been very few complaints considering the number of people -- 2.4 million -- receiving water from San Francisco, Dr. Weintraub said. Most complaints come from the Peninsula; there have been none from San Francisco. "The complaints represent a very small proportion of users."

"On any given day 10 percent of the population in the U.S. will have a skin complaint," she said. "The skin is the largest organ in the body."

Dr. Weintraub has developed a questionnaire for people with skin rash, designed to sort out symptoms and see how many may be directly related to water.

"We hope to get information on exactly what symptoms people have," she said. "There's no question that people are experiencing symptoms, but there's no history in the medical literature.

"I'm keeping an open mind."

Dr. Weintraub recommends people with symptoms consult their doctor.

Anyone interested in the questionnaire, which can be given by phone, may call epidemiologist Magda Berger at 415-252-3968. For more information, call the SFPUC at 415-554-0734, or go to

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