Pennsylvania American Water Co. will switch soon from chlorine to chloramine to disinfect water it sends through its 2,200 miles of water mains to 215,000 customers in Washington and southern Allegheny counties.
The company will make the change March 19, prompted by tighter federal regulations this spring to control carcinogenic disinfection byproducts including trihelamethane and haloacetic acid.
In addition, chemicals called bromides, which enter local waterways from power plants, abandoned mines and Marcellus Shale drilling wastewater discharges -- can react with the disinfectant chlorine to produce THMs, which have been linked to cancers and birth defects.
"With the new federal regulations taking effect, we took a proactive approach to ensure that our water meets all public-health standards prior to the required monitoring that will begin for our larger systems in 2012," said Gary Lobaugh, Pennsylvania American Water's external affairs manager for Western Pennsylvania.
"Compared to chlorine, chloramine produces substantially lower concentrations of the disinfection byproducts that the EPA regulates in drinking water," he said. "Also customers might notice reduced taste or smell of chlorine in their water."
Pennsylvania American customers in Brownsville, Fayette County, and in Butler, Clarion, Connellsville, Ellwood City and Uniontown already use chloramine-treated water.
Disinfecting water with chloramine is not new. It's been used in the United States for nearly 90 years. One in five Americans drinks water treated with chloramine, including residents of Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Indianapolis, Denver and Miami.
And chloramine use is growing. Of public water systems that use surface water, one-third use chloramine, and that could rise to one-half soon. The vast majority of government officials and water experts are comfortable with its use.
But the changeover has drawn reaction from a seven-state concerned-citizen network, led by the Chloramine Information Center in Harrisburg, which says that studies revealing adverse health and environmental impacts are being overlooked. Other problems include pipe corrosion caused by chloramine that can increase lead levels, while the disinfectant causes faster deterioration of rubber-based washers and fixtures in homes.
The group says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to regulate chloramine byproducts, including nitrosodimethylanime, known as NMDA, caused by nitrogen interacting with chloramine and chlorine. NMDA is toxic in minute concentrations and slow to biodegrade, making it a public-health concern, according to the Pure Water Gazette. Other chloramine byproducts, dichloramine and trichloramine, have produced health effects in animal studies but toxicity levels have not been set.
News accounts also report fish kills resulting from water-main breaks that sent chloraminated water into ponds and streams.
"It's not safe, it's not healthy, and it's not necessary," said Susan Pickford, the Chloramine Information Center executive director. "We are being sold a bill of goods by the EPA."
Also of concern is that chloramine is a weaker disinfectant than chlorine, making it less effective in killing E. coli among other infectious microbes, she said.
But Mr. Lobaugh said solutions exist to neutralize problems that chloramine can cause in water distribution systems. The EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection and state Health Department, "among other credible health institutions continue to recognize it as a safe, effective disinfectant."
Pipe corrosion that can release lead and copper can be controlled through the addition of phosphates, which act as corrosion inhibitors. Chloramine byproducts are controlled by maintaining a proper chlorine-to-ammonia ratio and balancing pH to prevent formation of NMDA and other byproducts.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the levels of residual chloramines typically found in drinking water "pose no apparent public health hazard." And the National Association of Water Companies, Pennsylvania Chapter, says that the taste and odor of finished water actually will improve.
Chloramine, like chlorine, must be removed from water used in fish tanks and for dialysis. People with suppressed immunity, including transplant recipients and HIV/AIDs patients, are advised to consult their physicians as a precaution.
The EPA says chloraminated water meets drinking-water standards and is safe for drinking and cooking. Its proposed Stage 1 Disinfectant and Disinfection Byproduct Rule provides a detailed risk assessment process followed in setting the standard for chloramine usage.
"The EPA admits that not as much research has been done on chloramine, but its limit -- at 4 milligrams per liter for chlorine and chloramine -- provides a big safety cushion," said Stanley States, water quality manager with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
He said both the EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have done health risk assessments for chloramine and found no health impacts.
"There have been reports of skin, breathing and digestive problems, but they've looked at that data and said they can't draw conclusions that they are linked," he said.
Pittsburgh, which has 250,000 water customers and produces 70 to 100 million gallons a day, can't use chloramine because the Highland Park Reservoir is uncovered and corrosion inhibitors would cause an algae bloom. Mr. States said the system will meet stricter standards by spending up to $250,000 each for changes to three large water tanks, including vents and mixers to dissipate disinfectant byproducts into the air and out of the water.
Water systems throughout southwestern Pennsylvania long have used chloramine, including the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which has used it since the early 1970s. It provides water to 400,000 people in Westmoreland and portions of Allegheny, Fayette, Indiana and Armstrong counties, said John Ashton, the authority's assistant manager.
The EPA says health authorities recognize that some people may have chemical sensitivities to chloramine, and the authority received its first complaint last month.
Heidi Redmond, 27, a registered nurse whose family moved last September from Garrett, Somerset County, to Irwin, developed burning and itching red rashes in October and she soon linked her rashes and those that her 9-month-old son, Peyton, developed to chloramine in the water. In an experiment, she put one arm under the shower for three minutes. When a rash formed only on that arm, she concluded that chloramine was the cause. She returns to Somerset County to shower and refrains from doing laundry or the dishes.
"Once I realized it was doing this to my skin, I didn't want anything to do with the water," Ms. Redmond said. "I have real concerns about health, and what this will do in the long term."
Mr. Ashton said he's received far more complaints about dry skin, chlorine odors and taste from customers of the authority's Ligonier and McKeesport operations that still use chlorine.
The West View Water Authority used chloramine from 1930 through 1980, then returned to chloramine use in 2008, said Joseph Dinkel, the authority's executive director. But problems arose.
"We curtailed the use of chloramine [in 2009] due to problems in the older part of the system," he said, explaining that chloramine was stripping pipe linings and releasing elevated lead levels into the water. Despite those problems, Mr. Dinkel said he endorses chloramine use, noting that "it does a fabulous job for the water industry" in meeting EPA drinking-water standards.
Mr. Ashton also said chloramine causes rubber-based washers and fixtures in plumbing to deteriorate faster, but improved products can solve those problems.
"Any change in treatment is taken very seriously, and we closely examine any possible impacts on our customers," Mr. Lobaugh said, noting that his company collects dozens of samples each month from homes throughout its water-distribution system.
Nationwide, chloramine use is growing, especially in larger water utilities, said Djanette Khiari, manager of the Water Research Foundation in Denver, where it's been used for more than 80 years. The key is studying each system to avoid adverse effects.
"I think chloramine is the best option we have right now," she said. "Monitoring is what we focus on because we have solutions and know how to control them, but it requires continued monitoring and management of the system."