Water treatment worries residents

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 4:36 PM

The invention of wide-scale chemical treatment of drinking water was heralded for its ability to prevent illness.

Although treated water has been in use for more than a century, scientists still do not fully understand its side effects.

Concerns have been raised by local residents after Montezuma Water Co. began adding chemical compounds known as chloramines to the treatment process of drinking water for much of rural Montezuma County.

Company Manager Mike Bauer said the issue was discussed at meetings for three years before chloramines were added to the process in December 2010. He said the decision to add chloramines was in anticipation of Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regulations aimed at clamping down on the levels of disinfection byproducts created by the existing chlorine treatment.

“The biggest reason we’re adding chloramines is to meet the new standards that actually have to be in place by 2013,” Bauer said, adding chloramines have been proven to reduce the levels of the byproducts of chlorine treatment.

Dolores residents Gretchen Masters and Sheila Wheeler said they became concerned about the health effects of chloramines-treated water after researching the topic on the Internet.

“It’s just one chemical on top of another chemical,” Wheeler said. “And that, to me, is not solving the real problem. ... Adding another chemical on top of chlorine is not going to take care of the problems that chlorine is creating.”

Bauer said chloramines were also chosen because of their uses as a secondary disinfectant. While chlorine is a more potent disinfectant, it has a tendency to dissipate over time. Chloramines, essentially a combination of ammonia and chlorine, last longer and is more effective as a secondary disinfectant in the water as it travels through Montezuma Water’s network of more than 1,000 miles of pipe, he said.

“If we use chloramines, it doesn’t dissipate as fast and it gets out to the far reaches of our system,” Bauer said. “That’s why large rural systems are going to chloramines.”

For this reason, Montezuma Water has utilized chloramines in its long lines to Dove Creek since 2004.

Masters believes there are better alternatives to chloramines, such as sterilization with ultraviolet light.

“Why can’t they just set up a few places along the way to Dove Creek where they hit it with some UV light?” she said.

Bauer said Montezuma Water is considering ultraviolet treatment for the future, but chloramines are currently the most cost-effective treatment.

Although chloramines have been used in water treatment for more than 80 years, there are relatively few studies on the effects of human consumption.

The EPA has given its blessing to chloramines for water treatment, but acknowledges gaps in research — particularly regarding the byproducts of the treatment.

In 2004, Michael J. Plewa, a genetic toxicologist with the University of Illinois, joined with EPA scientists to study chloramines-treated drinking water in Corpus Christi, Texas.

He said he discovered iodoacetic acid, what he said is toxic and damaging to mammalian DNA.

In a telephone interview with the Journal, Plewa said he was particularly concerned with chloramines’ reaction with iodine and bromine, which are elements commonly found in the water supplies of coastal cities, but can also be found inland near ancient dried oceans.

As a scientist, Plewa said he cannot say if chloramines are more dangerous than chlorine.

He said scientists understand the effects of only half of the disinfection byproducts of chlorine and know even less about the byproducts of chloramines treatment.

“We’ve been disinfecting water for more than 100 years,” he said. “And we have so little information.”

He recommends water treatment officials examine iodine and bromine levels before utilizing chloramines treatments.

Plewa said he is seeking funding for a joint study with the EPA on the effects of chloramines disinfection byproducts.

Conrad Holber, plant supervisor for Montezuma Water, said the chloramines added to the water would be diluted to a concentration of 1 part per million. The maximum level allowable by the EPA is 4 ppm.

A 2000 study on female mice exposed to chloramines at levels up to 200 ppm for 28 days showed minimal effects. However a similar study on rats exposed for 10 months showed reduced red blood cell counts and hemoglobin levels in the rats. Hemoglobin bonds oxygen to the blood cells.

A 2001 study exposing trout to chloramine-T showed the fish began dying at 50 ppm and reached a 100 percent mortality rate at 300 ppm.

Like chlorine treated water, chloramines treated water is toxic to pet fish. However, chloramines requires special treatment measures to remove.

The EPA recommends individuals with weakened immune systems, kidney problems, chemical sensitivities and dialysis patients should consult their doctors about the use of chloramines-treated water.

In concentrated form, chloramines can be a skin or eye irritant and may cause repository problems.

Concerns have also been raised about chloramines acceleration of corrosion in lead pipes. Chloramines corrosion was attributed to a rise in lead content in the drinking water of Washington, D.C., in 2002.

In response, Bauer said Montezuma Water will add soda ash to the water to lower acidity and reduce corrosion.

Masters said anyone can go on the Internet to research chloramines and become scared by what they learn.

“I think they should know what information’s available,” Wheeler said. “I think people should know that they do have 10 minutes, 15 minutes in their life to look this up and to become educated and informed.”

Bauer said Montezuma Water chose to use chloramines not only because of EPA and state health department approval, but also got approval from an independent engineering study conducted in 2005, which found chloramines to be the best treatment.

“You can go on the Internet and find something bad about anything you want,” he said. “You could probably find something bad about soda ash. What we’ve done is taken an approved method.”

Masters and Wheeler say they do not trust the EPA to look out for public health.

“People are telling me, ‘Well I don’t trust the EPA,’” Bauer said. “Well, we don’t have any choice. We have to meet those standards, so we have to find the best possible solution to do that. That’s what we felt like we’ve done.”

Montezuma Water services parts of Montezuma and Dolores counties as well as a small section of San Miguel County with water lines extending to the Utah state line, south of Cortez, north of Dove Creek and east through the recently acquired Summit Ridge system, Bauer said.

Officials from Cortez, Mancos and Dolores said they do not use chloramines for treatment in their respective municipal water systems.

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