Experimenting with Your Health

Monday evening last the Chatham County Board of Commissioners met to hear from citizens about allowing liquor by the drink to be put to a county wide vote. Perhaps a hundred folks showed up. Those opposed, mostly church goers, were so inclined on moral grounds. They were concerned about increased drunk driving, and child safety. I would not argue with their anxiety. To be truthful, I’m troubled by some of the same issues.

But because I’m a resident of Pittsboro, there is another issue that ranks much higher on my list than liquor by the drink: water quality in Pittsboro.

If you live in Pittsboro or Siler City, you’ve received notices from your municipality that it continually violates federal drinking water standards for elevated levels of the toxins, trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids(HAAs). The trihalomethanes cause cancer and the haloacetic acids damage the liver and nervous system. These toxins rise sharply in the blood during showers, baths and ingestion. But the damage takes many years to accumulate, so it’s easy to ignore. It reminds me of the iron workers at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in the 50s and 60s. They couldn’t see, feel or taste atomic radiation, so there was no sense of imminent danger. Years later cancer took its toll among their numbers.

Yet, when presented with such evidence, Pittsboro and Siler City residents passively do almost nothing. We seem resigned to our fate, but fortunately the State of North Carolina is not. A fine of $30,000 hangs over Pittsboro if something is not done soon. But Pittsboro’s so-called solution could be just as dangerous as the present contamination.

The Town of Pittsboro plans to begin choramine treatment very soon. Chlorine + ammonia = chloramine. This is supposed to get rid of the health damaging chemicals mentioned above. This is doubtful. UNC Prof. Philip Singer, in consultation with Pittsboro, wrote that if THMs continue to exceed regulatory levels, “… ammonia addition will not solve the problem.” Our water source, the Haw River, is loaded with organic carbon and other pollutants that make chloramine effectiveness highly suspect..

Choramine treatment, if not carried out precisely, can also leach lead from plumbing fixtures into your water. Lead causes brain damage. Switching to chloramine has already produced frightening water lead levels in Wayne County, NC and Goldsboro. What’s worse, is that mixing chlorine and ammonia creates literally hundreds of disinfection by products yet untested. Some of those that are known cause cancer and mutation of human genes, a cause of birth defects.

Dr. Michael Plewa of the University of Illinois at Champagne calls chloramine usage “a vastly big experiment” with our health.

Health affects have already been cited where chloramine treatment has begun in Vermont and California. Severe rashes, skin blistering, asthma and other respiratory symptoms, digestive disorders, kidney and blood disease, and aggravation of immune deficiency. The complaints have been in the hundreds, which may not sound like a lot. But these sensitive people are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine for the rest of us. Acute symptoms among a minority of chloramine users is a likely harbinger of long term affects in the remaining population.

One of the most dramatic responses to chloramine was experienced by Denise Kula-Johnson in California. During her first shower in chlormine treated water, Denise fell to her shower floor unconscious from the vapors she breathed. She must now travel miles for a chloramine-free shower. (See chloramine.org for more info).

Spills of chloramine treated water have also been responsible for fish kills in streams and rivers.

Whereas chlorine and its by products are relatively easy to filter out, chloramine and its toxins require expensive reverse osmosis treatment. Few of us can afford such an option.

But here’s the kicker. Chloramine disinfection by products are not regulated by law. Therefore, no one is responsible for testing the water to make sure it’s safe. We will have to be the guinea pigs in this “experiment”

So why did Pittsboro’s Town Board of Commissioners vote to begin chloramine treatment? Because it’s the cheapest off the shelf solution; a penny wise and pound foolish choice.

But we mustn’t be too hard on them. We were warned before the last election about our water dilemma. We were the ones who elected them and in so doing refused to make the hard choice and spend the necessary money to produce excellent municipal water. The lack of vision we might ascribe to our leaders is simply a reflection of ourselves. But there’s still a chance to change direction.

If we have the wisdom and political vigor, we could combine our town’s enterprise fund and grants with a water bond by a vote of the citizens to provide the water quality we deserve.

To quote Professor Singer “Other options for addressing the problem tend to be more expensive, e.g. membrane filtration, granular activated carbon adsorption, or an ion exchange treatment. While these options are indeed more expensive, they are probably better long-term options than the quick-fix combined chlorine option.”