The way your tap water is disinfected might be changing. Federal regulations to improve water safety are leading water utilities to switch the kind of chemicals they use. But Katherine Fink reports one of those chemicals might do more harm than good:
The way your tap water is disinfected might be changing. Federal regulations to improve water safety are leading water utilities to switch the kind of chemicals they use. But Katherine Fink reports one of those chemicals might do more harm than good.
Elmer’s Aquarium has tanks and tanks of fish.
“These are all freshwater; these fish come from all over the world.”
Karen Lukacsena is the Vice President of Elmer’s Aquarium here in a suburb of Pittsburgh.
“Elmer’s has been here for 40 years, and Elmer was my father.”
A lot has changed since Elmer started the business. For instance, there are different products that purify tap water for aquariums:
“Because we don’t really know when someone comes in here what their water’s treated with–whether it’s chlorine or chloramine. And they can always call and check, but to be safe, we just think everyone should go ahead and treat their water.”
Chlorine poisons fish. But if you set water out for a few days, the chlorine will dissipate. Chloramine is different. It’s what you get when you mix chlorine and ammonia. And it does not dissipate. It sticks around.
That’s one reason drinking water providers like it. Paul Zielinski is with Pennsylvania-American Water:
“We don’t see the decay through the distribution system reaching our furthest customers like we do with chlorine; it tends to stay longer in the system and provide a higher disinfectant level, if you will.”
That means even if the water stays in the underground pipes for a long time, chloramine will still be doing the job, disinfecting the water. Until recently, only about one-fifth of water providers used chloramine. Soon, two-thirds of them might be using it. That’s because of new federal rules that take effect in 2012. The Environmental Protection Agency found when organic matter—such as vegetation—mixes with chlorine, it increases the risk of bladder cancer and reproductive problems. So Zielinski says water providers like his are being ordered to limit that risk:
“So one of the ways to do it is obviously to switch from chlorine, which generates these byproducts, to chloramines, which doesn’t.”
But all disinfectants have their downside. For one thing, chloramine corrodes lead and copper pipes. Many water providers add other chemicals to prevent that from happening. But a few years ago, when Washington D.C. switched to chloramine, lead got into the water. Lead is toxic. It can cause learning disabilities. So much lead got into the tap water that researchers believe some young children lost IQ points.
The EPA’s regulatory arm says chloramine’s safe. But an EPA chemist, Susan Richardson, says she’s not so sure:
“Personally, as a private citizen, I would be a little bit concerned myself, and might have a filter on my faucet.”
Richardson’s research found that chloramine also creates byproducts in drinking water. And those byproducts appear even more toxic than the ones created by chlorine:
“I’m really hoping that some of the toxicologists at EPA carry this further to really help us assess that.”
“And in the meantime, we’re going to be drinking this water.”
Susan Pickford is an attorney who doesn’t want her town’s water to be disinfected with chloramine.
“Bathing in it, using it in cooking, and exposing ourselves to huge toxins until the EPA gets around to regulating them.”
Pickford is fighting plans to use chloramine in her central Pennsylvania town. She says there’s a better way to reduce toxic byproducts, and no one’s talking about it: filtering the water.
“If they could filter, and they can, there is filtration available that would help them filter 70 to 80 percent of those organics out of the source water, then when the chlorine cleans the water, it wouldn’t be creating all these byproducts.”
But better filtration systems are expensive. And utilities say water bills would go up for customers. That’s not popular. So they say it’s a matter of customers deciding how much of a risk they’re willing to take, and how much they’re willing to pay.
For the Environment Report, I’m Katherine Fink.