Considering chloramine

Is San Francisco's water causing weird rashes in some people? Stalled bill means we may never know

For three years, dozens of Bay Area residents have alleged the water disinfectant used in San Francisco and other cities causes a variety of symptoms ranging from asthma to fainting to rashes. The San Francisco Department of Public Health has spent more than $100,000 to study the chemical, chloramine, but it has not done a full scientific study that might prove or disprove a connection between the chemical and the reported symptoms.

Responding to the lack of scientific studies on the dermatological and respiratory effects of the chloramine, Assemblymember Ira Ruskin (D–Redwood City) introduced legislation to further study the chemical, but the measure was held up in the Appropriations Committee as the June 8 deadline for advancing it passed, frustrating those who hoped to finally get some answers.

Chloramine replaced chlorine in San Francisco's water system in February 2004 after the Environmental Protection Agency tightened regulations against trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, chlorine by-products that may be carcinogenic. Chloramine, which doesn't produce high levels of these by-products, is the only other distribution-system disinfectant with EPA approval. It has been in use since 1917, and 29 percent of water utilities in the United States now use it. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission was the last major Bay Area water utility to adopt it, placing it in the water that also supplies nearby cities.

Soon after the switch, though, people began to report problems. Denise Johnson-Kula of Menlo Park said she fainted while taking a shower two days after the chemical was introduced.

"My sinuses filled up; my nose was running like a faucet... I coughed and wheezed until I could not breathe and slid down the shower," she told the Guardian. "I heard the doorbell like I was dreaming; I didn't realize I was sitting on the bathroom floor."

After throwing out all her soap and shampoo and still having allergic reactions while bathing, she avoided the shower altogether. She still washed the dishes, though, and noticed she got rashes where the water touched her. Once she took herself completely off the water, Johnson-Kula's symptoms went away.

She now avoids the city water altogether, spending $200 a month on bottled water and traveling more than an hour to take a shower on weekends. She started a group called Citizens Concerned About Chloramine, which claims more than 400 members and has led to the creation of similar groups in Vermont, New York, and Maine.

Other stories play out similarly. Jo Yang, 24, of Los Altos, for example, developed debilitating rashes across his body and face while drinking chloraminated water in San Diego in college. When he came home in 2005 to Los Altos, which was then using chloramine, his rashes didn't clear up until he avoided the water. Marylin Raubitschek, 81, of San Mateo, says she is "very healthy," but days after chloramine was introduced, she got welts and scabs across her body. Once off the water, she said, her symptoms cleared up. Raubitschek is currently moving to a district that does not use chloraminated water.

In response to these allegations, the SFDPH spent six months from late 2004 to early 2005 studying the chemical. Although the SFDPH reviewed the available medical literature, the existence of complaints in other utility districts, and the chemistry of chloramine, it did not undertake a correlative study between the symptoms and the chemical. Such a study, it estimates, would require a sample of more than 142,000 people.

However, June Weintraub, a senior epidemiologist at the SFDPH, says the public health community would back a study if there were reason to believe the chemical might cause problems in some people. Part of the decision not to pursue further studies was based on an informal investigation into the dermatitis symptoms.

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