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Our water disinfectant: A civil rights violation
May 31, 2010, 03:30 AM By Barbara LaRaia
When our water disinfectant was changed from chlorine to chloramine in 2004, many people complained of respiratory problems, skin welts and rashes from showering. Half of our daily exposure to this chemical is from showering. When chloramine experiences temperature or pH changes, it converts to di and tri-chloramines. Tri-chloramine is a potent respiratory irritant which may explain some respiratory problems with showering.

Chloramine victims attended city council and San Francisco Public Utilities (PUC) meetings, and wrote letters of their plight. Nothing was done; officials merely publicly stated that chloramine is safe and that there is always going to be a certain percentage of the population that will react to water disinfectants. Yet, there is something different about chloramine and this percentage of the population. Before we used chloramine, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, our water was disinfected with chlorine. There were people who could not tolerate it, but these people could buy $8 filters. This is not the case with chloramine. According to several water officials with whom I spoke, there is no filter to remove chloramine from water other than buying a whole house system for upwards of $10,000. This dilemma infringes on our right to good health, and those who become ill from chloramine are being discriminated against by not being able to buy a viable filter to protect their health. This is a clear violation of our civil rights and is discrimination against all but the very wealthy.

Also, there is absolutely no test available — anywhere — to test chloramine in hot water. Water officials confirmed to me that there is no hot water chloramine test. Yet, hot water seems to be the culprit for the majority of chloramine-related health complaints. Just recently, a water CEO told me that "Chloramine changes properties when hot, so we cannot use the cold water test for it.”

I was recently surprised when another water specialist informed me that there are no standards (parts per billion, etc.) for the ammonia added to our water. Only the chlorine has the standard, yet both are constantly being added — at separate points — down the water line.

Then there was my plumbing bill of about $600 for my newer toilet that had to be rebuilt and my bathroom sink to have parts replaced. The plumber told me this was because of the chloramine, and that many people have had the same problems. Chloramine eats through plumbing parts, especially toilet floats, rubber, elastomer, copper and brass pipe fittings and water heater parts. According to the Department of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech, when chloramine eats through plumbing parts, pinhole leaks occur causing mold growth and lead leaching, a potentially serious health hazard. Chloramine increases lead leaching from lead solder joints in city water mains. To make matters worse, many water mains in this area are wrapped/lined with asbestos. So, we can have chloramine eating through pipes causing openings for asbestos to get into our drinking water. I recently learned that in the Bay Area there is an unusually high rate of pancreatic cancer, possibly due to ingesting asbestos from drinking water. Then there is the locally mandated fluoride in our water system which, when combined with chloramine, increases lead leaching from water pipes.

There have been no dermal or respiratory studies done on chloramine; in fact, our government states that there have been very few studies on the disinfectant. After hundreds of Bay Area residents initially complained of symptoms, several elected officials finally promised to check into this. I have seen nothing substantive from these so-called investigations; furthermore, we could investigate ad infinitum, but until a test is developed to check chloramine and its by-products in hot water and until guidelines are set for the ammonia, the political wheels will continue to spin on the backs of those whose health continues to be compromised from chloramine and its toxic by-products.

On a larger scale, if there is an eco-terrorist attack on our water supply, we are now more vulnerable with chloramine as our disinfectant. According to the Water Quality Association, chloramine is weak for inactivating certain viruses. And according to the Chloramine Information Center, manufacturers of terrorist detection systems have recommended that chloramine not be used as a disinfectant in water systems, as it will not provide a critical early alert necessary for detection.

Knowing that there is no affordable filter for chloramine and that those who become ill from the chloramine cannot protect their health because of this; that there is no test for chloramine in hot water; that there are no standards for the ammonia; and that chloramine is not a strong defense against a terrorist threat on our water supply, not one elected official should remain complacent regarding the public health threat resulting from their votes to approve and actually tout this water disinfectant.

Barbara LaRaia is a San Bruno resident and has written numerous guest perspectives on different subjects over the years for the San Mateo Daily Journal. She can be reached by e-mail at: or phone at (650) 615-9384.

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