There’s a threat in the water, and it appears only as a single word on your water bill: chloramines. It’s the combination of ammonia and chlorine that’s added to the water to disinfect it before use. However, when added together, ammonia and chlorine create toxic, cancer-causing disinfection byproducts.
For many years, chlorine has been the primary chemical used to eradicate the risks of waterborne diseases. In the last few years many municipal water treatment plants have switched to chloramines due to their ability to disinfect water for longer periods of time. When these disinfectants interact with the organic materials in water, disinfection byproducts are created. Many of these byproducts are thought to cause gastric or liver cancer, or pose other health risks such as increased asthma symptoms, danger to mucous membranes, digestive problems and skin irritation. Kidney dialysis patients cannot use water that contains chloramines in their dialysis machines because it will cause hemolytic anemia.
While chloramine poses a risk to everyone, there is an increased risk to populations with weakened immune systems, including children younger than 6 months, the elderly, those on or who have had chemotherapy, people with HIV or AIDS and organ transplant patients.
The use of chloramines is growing. The EPA estimates more than 20 percent—or 1 in 5—of Americans use water treated with chloramines. More states are adding chloramine to water supplies because it is a more stable and longer-lasting alternative to free chlorine. Free chlorine is chlorine before it combines with other chemicals, but it can evaporate quickly, while the stability of chloramine means it lasts longer in the water supply and the harmful byproducts reach the consumer in higher levels.
Washington D.C. witnessed another side effect in 2004 when chloramines were introduced. Officials say lead contamination resulted from chloramine-related pipe corrosion. The city discovered lead levels at least 83 times higher than the accepted safe limit while performing research into premature pipe corrosion. They found that the decision to change from using chlorine to chloramine as a treatment resulted in a spike in lead levels. A report released in 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the water supplied to almost 15,000 homes might still contain dangerous levels of lead despite the partial replacement of lead pipes at the homes from 2004 to 2008.
As consumers, we need to be aware of the dangers posed by these byproducts in our water. In a recent study conducted by water filtration company Aquasana, it became apparent that our country doesn’t know the risk associated with unfiltered water. More than 70 percent of respondents were unaware of the health risks connected to drinking and bathing in unfiltered tap water, and 91 percent did not know that one of the President’s Cancer Panel’s top three recommendations to reduce environmentally-based cancer is to filter tap water.
The EPA does not force any state or town to use chloramine as a disinfectant. Additionally, they recommend many alternatives to the toxic mixture, including removing organic contaminants through coagulation or sedimentation. However, the use of more and more chemicals in water treatment underscores the need to regulate what goes into our water supply in the first place. By limiting toxic materials and enforcing regulations, the need for such harsh chemical disinfectants diminishes.
Along with Washington D.C., Tennessee has completely banned chloramines from water. This is the best possible outcome for consumers, but in the meantime, filtering your water has never been more important. When shopping for water filters, make sure that the company has a National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) certification to remove chloramines.