Antelope Valley water users leery of chloramines

When Frances O’Hara moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2006, taking a shower became torture. Her eyes burned, her skin itched and an unsightly rash spread across her face and body.

But when the Silver Lake resident, a student and model, traveled out of the city or resorted to washing in bottled water, she said, her ailments would cease. After months of research, she concluded that the problem was the chloramines being added to the water supply in Los Angeles.

Water agency: An article Dec. 10 in Section A about the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency’s consideration of using chloramines to disinfect its water said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had mandated that the agency switch from chlorine to chloramines by October 2014. The use of chloramines, which the EPA strongly supports, is optional, not mandatory. —

“What I’m going through is so insane,” O’Hara said. “It’s destroying my career. I’m going to move because of this.”

Such anecdotes have prompted some residents in the Antelope Valley to aggressively oppose a plan to treat their water with chloramine, a long-lasting chemical used to rid tap water of bacteria and contaminants but that they fear can lead to health risks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated that the local water agency switch from chlorine to chloramines by October 2014. Many communities, including Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego, made the conversion years ago.

But there has been opposition, and the high desert residents are just the latest enlistees in the ongoing push-back to using the chlorine-and-ammonia blend to disinfect water. From New York to California, people who live in communities where chloramines are added to the water have complained of issues including rashes and breathing problems, and some have even altered their day-to-day lives in extreme ways to avoid the chemical -- driving to neighboring towns to shower or using bottled water for washing.

Though chloramines have been in use in some communities for as long as 90 years and there is no scientific proof that they are harmful, advocacy groups and one California assemblyman are pushing for full testing to determine whether there is a health risk.

Chloramines are favored as a disinfectant because they last longer in water, remove bacteria and viruses more effectively, and create fewer disease-causing byproducts, according to federal scientists. However, like chlorine, they can kill fish and should be filtered out of water used by kidney dialysis patients.

The Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, a wholesale provider of water to agencies including the Los Angeles County Waterworks Districts, its largest retail customer, decided more than a year ago to switch to chloramines.

“That project is built and ready to go,” said Mike Flood, the agency’s interim general manager.

But protests have streamed in from Antelope Valley residents.

“I don’t know anything about anybody getting sick from the water we use now,” said longtime Palmdale resident Pamela Lents, who questioned the need for the switch. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

The Chloramine Information Center, a grass-roots organization of south-central Pennsylvania residents, was formed to oppose the introduction of chloramines to local drinking water. In Vermont, People Concerned About Chloramine seeks to raise the public’s awareness about chloramines and their health effects. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, Citizens Concerned About Chloramine, a nonprofit group, shares a similar aim.

Denise Johnson-Kula, a 26-year Menlo Park resident who formed the Bay Area group, said she started to experience a body rash, burning eyes and severe breathing problems in early 2004 whenever she showered. Her ailments began shortly after the Hetch Hetchy water system, controlled by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, switched to chloramines.

Johnson-Kula, who travels out of Menlo Park each weekend to shower, said her group has documented the chloramine-related symptoms of more than 500 Bay Area residents; and many hundreds more from California and at least 30 other states have contacted the organization for advice and information.

Joseph Yang, 26, said he developed severe eczema during his junior year at UC San Diego in 2005. His eyelids were swollen, his skin was inflamed with sores, and it hurt to move his arms and legs, he said.

Yang said he sought a remedy from 20 to 30 doctors, including dermatologists and allergists. Finally he quit school and returned to his Northern California hometown of Los Altos Hills. But in his absence, Los Altos had switched to chloramines, and Yang said his symptoms persisted.

He ultimately stopped using tap water, and his ailments disappeared. He has since returned to UC San Diego but uses bottled water to bathe.

Opponents believe there has not been adequate testing on the skin or respiratory effects of chloramines. In August, the California Legislature adopted a resolution, introduced by Assemblyman Ira Ruskin (D-Redwood City) asking the State Department of Health to formally request the U.S. EPA to conduct testing of the effects of chloramines on human health. It had taken four years for Ruskin to get the measure through the Legislature.

Given the opposition of Antelope Valley residents to the use of chloramines, the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency is instead considering switching to granular-activated carbon -- a treatment supporters believe has fewer health risks.

But because the water treatment plants are now equipped to host chloramines, switching to granular-activated carbon would probably result in water rate increases, officials said. According to Ken Kirby, a consultant hired by the L.A. County Waterworks Districts, bimonthly water rates to the district’s 180,000 customers would increase about 50%. Many customers worry they wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Flood said his agency will get feedback from customers before making a decision.