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Chemical Reactions

June 09, 1985

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner should leave the issue of chloramines alone until the federal government releases its study of the long-term health effects of the chemical sometime next year.

Reiner and his special assistant for occupational safety and health, Jan Chatten-Brown, have accused Metropolitan Water District officials of misleading the public on the safety of chloramines, a new chemical purifier being introduced into the Met system. Whatever evidence exists about the safety of chloramines supports the water district, and Reiner's unnecessary alarmism is more misleading than the Met's literature.

Reiner says that recent scientific studies show chloramines to be potentially dangerous to infants and people with low stomach acids. These studies, however, are inconclusive, and it seems highly unlikely that doctors and health officials in cities that have used chloramines for 60 years would not have noticed adverse effects on infants by now. Chloramines does pose a serious threat to kidney-dialysis patients, but dialysis centers and personal physicians here and around the country have learned to filter chloramines from the water. If chloramines does indeed adversely affect another group of at-risk people, that group's water also could be treated.

Reiner challenged the Met because it used the word safe in its pamphlet to customers to describe chloramines. The district relies on state and federal regulations to guide policy decisions, and those regulations say that the use of chloramines is "a safe and effective means of disinfection." Reiner's studies do not by any means prove that chloramines is unsafe.

The district attorney and other opponents of the use of chloramines must realize that the abundance of chemicals in practically everything that we consume has made safety a relative concept. Almost every chemical adversely affects some group of people. The MWD replaced free chlorine with chloramines because chlorine was found to form potential carcinogens when it combined with the organic material in water. Unless the federal study turns up new evidence, the use of chloramines in American cities with populations totaling 26 million has been just as safe as and much less costly than any alternative purifying process.

According to one Met official, the questions about chloramines that Reiner and Chatten-Brown want answered apply to every known method of water purification. Reiner criticized the district for rejecting a granular activated carbon system as a replacement for chlorine solely on the ground of cost, but again his criticism is unwarranted--this time for two reasons: (1) Granular activated carbon could not serve as a replacement for chloramines. After water passes through carbon filters, it still needs to be disinfected. That job would fall to chloramines. (2) The burden of funding a carbon system, which would cost 100 times the amount involved in using chloramines, would rest on customers. Reiner says that people would pay for safer drinking water, but the large body of evidence shows that we are getting it already with chloramines.

Is chloramines safe? The MWD is justified in telling the public "Yes." If the district attorney's office wants to pick on somebody, it should pick on the people who set the standards.

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