Considering chloramine - Page 2

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

Individuals were invited to call in to report symptoms and answer questions.

But Johnson-Kula says few knew about the investigation. Even as president of the CCAC, she did not know about it until there was a month left. She said that when people finally called in, "they were told the survey was over."

Seventeen people took the survey in the end. The results were published in a peer-reviewed journal and concluded that the symptoms were too heterogeneous to warrant further study. But Weintraub noted, "It is possible that people might experience different symptoms from the same irritant."

One SFPUC report adds that there was no change in the number of water-illness complaints between 2002 and 2006. The only change experienced was a decrease in dirty-water complaints.

"Given the evidence that we have available now, it absolutely points that there is not a public health concern," said Weintraub, who notes that 12 percent of people have dermatitis, which could explain the symptoms.

But how does that square with the city's precautionary principle, which demands it err on the side of caution about the use of chemicals, even if that is not immediately cost-effective?

"There is less research on chloramine than on chlorine, [so] I don't blame the SFPUC for moving over to chloramine," said Jennifer Clary, a water policy analyst at Clean Water Action. "[It's] avoiding the devil you know for the one you don't."

The precautionary principle may guide us to use chloramine, but it also demands we invest the resources to understand its potential effects. The recently defeated bill would have directed the UC Center for Water Resources to do a $140,000 study of the disinfectants used by the SFPUC and their by-products.

The director of the UC Center for Water Resources, Andrew Chang, told us, "If this study is not done, there is not much lost from a scientific point of view.... As far as we're concerned, chloramine at the kind of level [one to two parts per million] is safe."

Marc Edwards disagrees. A professor at Virginia Tech, Edwards discovered that the switch to chloramine in Washington, DC, caused lead to be leached into drinking water.

"As a general rule ... you ignore homeowner complaints at your own peril," he says. "More often than not, there is something to those complaints."

Edwards points to a recent case in Maui. Citizens were reporting rashes and breathing difficulties after chloramine was added to the water. He says authorities considered their stories "half-baked," but eventually the symptoms were linked to Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium whose presence was triggered by the addition of phosphates to the chloraminated water.

"Someone could and should be looking into this in a systematic and scientific way," Edwards said.*

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