The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency all but dismisses chloramines as a serious health threat. But don’t tell that to a local group that sees the water-supply disinfectant - a combination of ammonia and chlorine - as dangerous and life altering.
Los Altos area-based Citizens Concerned About Chloramine (CCAC) earlier this year convinced the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to request that the EPA conduct studies on skin, respiratory and digestive reactions to chloraminated tap water. The SFPUC controls the Hetch Hetchy water system, which supplies water to 26 Bay Area cities, including parts of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.
Experts consider chloramine a more effective disinfectant than the standard chlorine. Although the compound appears to have no ill effects on the majority of the population, some claim to have had severe reactions.
Menlo Park resident Denise Johnson-Kula said she reacted in February 2004, shortly after Hetch Hetchy water was chloraminated. After showering, she experienced asthma and skin rashes.
She identified chloramines as the cause after discovering that the water in Morgan Hill, which uses chlorine, had no ill effects on her.
In June 2004, Johnson-Kula founded CCAC, a non-profit organization whose mission is to "raise the public's level of awareness about chloramine and its health effects."
The SFPUC resolution lists "several hundred cases" in the district, and notes that no agency, ... has conducted studies to determine chloramines' effects.
The EPA notes: "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. Water that contains chloramines and meets EPA regulatory standards is safe to use for drinking, cooking, bathing and other household uses."
Those claiming reactions to chloramines said they are compromised every day.
Longtime Los Altos resident George Popaduk, 80, said he moved out of town specifically because of his reaction to chloramines.
Joseph Yang, a Gunn High School graduate, said he suffered from the chloraminated water.
"I began to develop progressive eczema, covering from head to toe," Yang said. "My eyelids were swollen, my jaw was inflamed, even moving my arms or legs hurt because of the severity of the rashes."
Yang's symptoms began when he used the water at UC San Diego and continued when he returned to Los Altos.
It wasn't until he stopped using tap water to drink and shower for nearly three weeks that Yang realized it was the water that caused his symptoms.
"I tried using all kinds of filters, but my symptoms never went away," Yang said.
Now he uses purified water for showering and drinking, and his rashes have mostly disappeared.
"This definitely should have been studied carefully before it was put in our water," he said. "It was completely unethical and reckless to make this change to chloramine without any definitive evidence that it would be more effective than chlorine."
Johnson-Kula said her group's efforts to curb chloramines are starting to pay off.
"I have recently been in communication with some scientists at the EPA who are very interested in chloramines' health effects," she said. "As a result, designs for health studies on chloramines are being discussed and considered by EPA researchers. The symptom data and information that CCAC has gathered over the last five years is critical input. â€¦ I have been asked to provide that input."
For more information, visit www.chloramine.org or call Johnson-Kula at 328-0424.
NOTE: The California Water Service Company is changing its treatment process from chloramines to free chlorine for a two-week period, beginning this week. Cal Water officials said the change is to allow system maintenance and inspection of Santa Clara Valley Water District facilities.
For more information, call 917-0152 or visit www.calwater.com.