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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Chlorination is an effective way to disinfect water, and ever since childhood most of us have known that a little aftertaste of chlorine in a sip of tap water is but a reassurance that our water is safe. But there are communities where citizens are saying "no" to chlorine in drinking water. They say it produces byproducts that have been linked to miscarriages and cancers. One place where the debate is especially intense is the British Columbia town of Erickson. Bob Carty reports.

(Flowing water)

CARTY: In the Kooteney Mountains of British Columbia, a pristine creek gurgles through a snow-crested forest. Cold, clear, fresh water. A very special gift of creation to the people of the valley below.

MAN 1: We really do like our water. If you've tasted it, take a sip, swish it around, you'd say, "Oh, man, that water is sweet."

WOMAN: The water is delicious. It's lovely water.

MAN 2: When my wife and I, we travel anywhere, we take this Erickson water wherever we go.

CARTY: But where some see sacred beauty, others see danger in this water.

LARDER: It's a dangerous drink. It's a health hazard. It's contaminated with bacteria on a regular basis, and I wouldn't drink it under any circumstance.

CARTY: Welcome to Erickson, British Columbia, where water is a more common topic of conversation and dispute than even the weather. Erickson is a battle line in the debate over safe drinking water, and the debate starts up in the mountains.

(Flowing water)

MASUCH: This is Arrow Creek, and it flows into a valley of forested timber hillsides. There is no one living above here. There are no livestock. There's nothing. It's pristine. This is where Erickson gets their water.

CARTY: Elvin Masuch is a retired fruit farmer, and the chair of the Erickson Improvement District, a citizen group that operates this water system. Masuch knows that there are some bacteria in this water, but they're very few and not of a disease-causing kind. Elvin Masuch has been drinking this water for 65 years.

MASUCH: This water right now doesn't have any risk. Chlorine does, I know it does. There's about 2,000 people that drink the water. If people are getting sick, we'd know about it.

CARTY: But Elvin Masuch now finds himself in a bit of hot water. Recently, Masuch and his fellow trustees were stripped of their authority. The province of British Columbia took over the management of the water system, and it was all done at the insistence of the regional Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Andrew Larder.

LARDER: All I am trying to do is to protect people's health, and I am doing it with the best information and the best knowledge that's available to me and to the people I work with.

CARTY: What Dr. Andrew Larder wants to do is chlorinate Erickson's water. The problem is, chlorination is opposed by virtually everyone in Erickson . They've been fighting it every way they can, with court injunctions, protests, the blockade of a road for 55 days. And even with a song aimed directly at Dr. Larder.

WOMAN: (Sings) I want food in my larder but no Larder in my water. Erickson's the place I want to be...

(Speaks) We will never allow a single drop of chlorine to be put into our water.

(Sings) And they ain't gonna chlorinate me, no sir. They ain't gonna chlorinate me, no sir...

THORNTON: Erickson is not an isolated situation. There are scores of communities around the world that are working to have clean water, which is effectively disinfected and free of the organo-chlorine byproducts which can cause severe health effects.

CARTY: Joe Thornton is a biologist at Columbia University and the author of a new book called "Pandora's Poison." It's a study of the history, science, and environmental impact of chlorine.

THORNTON: Chlorine is a very powerful substance that combines rapidly and randomly with whatever organic matter it encounters. Organic matter is the carbon-based substances that our bodies are made of and everything in the living world is made of.

CARTY: And the result is the formation of chlorination byproducts. When chlorine interacts with organic matter, things like leaves that are dissolved in water, it creates new chemicals. Things like trihalomethanes or THMs, in addition to 200 other chlorine byproducts. Few of them have ever been studied, and all of them come to us when we turn on the tap, or breathe in the air of a morning shower. Now, scientists concede that chlorine does effectively and cheaply disinfect water. It's probably saved more lives this century than any other chemical. But the growing concern is that its byproducts are associated with a range of health hazards. Hazards like bladder cancer, studied by Queens University epidemiologist Will King.

KING: People who were exposed to a high level of chlorination byproducts for many years had a higher risk of bladder cancer than those who had been exposed in their water supply for only a few years. So, for example, we used trihalomethanes, one of the most abundant byproducts, as a measure of chlorination byproducts. And those exposed to an elevated trihalomethane level of 50 micrograms per liter for over 35 years had a 60 percent increase in risk for bladder cancer, compared to those who were not exposed at this level.

CARTY: And those results were found for amounts of chlorination byproducts that are half of the current, so-called, safe levels in Canada. While Professor King studied the possible impact of chlorination over decades, others have studied the consequences of short-term exposure for women in the first months of pregnancy. Dr. Kirsten Waller, an American physician and epidemiologist, looked at miscarriages among 5,000 women.

WALLER: Our basic finding was that women who drink at least five glasses a day of water that had at least 75 micrograms per liter or parts per billion of total trihalomethanes in it were about 60, 65 percent more likely to have a miscarriage than women who were drinking water that did not have as much THM in it. Any time you have an exposure that is affecting millions and millions and millions of people, even though your risk might be relatively low, you're still going to have an enormous effect. So, you're still talking about thousands of people being affected by it.

CARTY: And again, those results were seen at levels below what is currently deemed safe in the United States. Now this is fairly young science. Epidemiologists admit their studies can't yet declare a cause and effect relationship between cancers or miscarriages and these byproducts. And some say there's no cause for alarm at all, especially the chlorine industry itself. Water treatment is a small volume business for the chlorine industry, but saving people from waterborne diseases is the poster boy activity for a chemical that's already under siege by environmentalists for its other uses. Robert Tardiff is a toxicologist with a private consulting business. He sometimes speaks on behalf of the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the organization that represents the industry.

TARDIFF: I think consumers should feel very confident that chlorinated drinking water is really the best thing for them. There are a few compounds that are mutagenic, but they're not in sufficient quantities to be able to cause any kind of mutational injuries within the body. Chlorine itself has a tremendous advantage in terms of protecting public health on the one hand and not having any injurious consequences on the other.

WILGE: Dr. Tardiff's assertions remind me of the so-called debate around tobacco of ten, twenty years ago. I just don't buy it as a scientist.

CARTY: Don Wilge is a medical epidemiologist with the Canadian Government Department of Health.

WILGE: There comes a point when the evidence can no longer be ignored. I think we're at that point. Chlorinated byproducts can cause birth defects, several types of cancer. One of the compounds produced by chlorination is called MX. It's the most potent known mutagen. These are compounds that can cause mutations in your DNA. If you wait until the evidence is black and white, people get sick and die.

(Footfalls, unlocking)

MASUCH: This is our latest experiment.

(A door squeaks open)

CARTY: Back in Erickson, British Columbia, Elvin Masuch is showing me how the town would like to disinfect its water: not with chlorine but with a relatively new technology.

(Running water)

MASUCH: We were thinking of ultraviolet. So what we thought we'd do, the big blue pipe is Arrow Creek water. And that runs from there into the ultraviolet unit and supplies the 15 homes. There's two hoses running. One is the raw water from Arrow Creek, untreated, and the other hose is running from the ultraviolet. So far, it's tested perfect.

CARTY: Author and chlorine expert Joe Thornton believes this kind of technology can work. Thornton says that ultraviolet, along with ozonation and fine filtration, are effective non-chlorine treatments that are the way of the future.

THORNTON: The choice is not between chlorine and no disinfection. The choice should be between chlorine and other modes of disinfection. But the chlorine industry in the United States and Canada is extremely powerful, spends millions of dollars every year working to prevent communities and industries from moving away from their dependence on chlorine-based technologies.

CARTY: But there's a hurdle in the move toward non-chlorine technologies: how to keep water safe in between the treatment plant and our homes. In a big city that can take seven to ten days, during which time the water can become reinfected. That's why a residual amount of chlorine is added as water leaves treatment plants. Keith Christman is a senior director for the Chlorine Chemistry Council in Washington, D.C.

CHRISTMAN: There are no real alternatives to chlorine disinfection. Chlorine is the only disinfectant that protects the water from the treatment plant all the way to the tap. Those other technologies can be used in addition to chlorine, but they're not alternatives.

CARTY: But Don Wilge of Canada's Health Department says the situation is not so black and white. Alternative treatment technologies like UV are gaining more and more credibility. In Amsterdam, and a half-dozen other cities in Europe, safe water standards are met without chlorine, even as a residual in the pipes. Meanwhile, both Canada and the U.S. are considering lowering the level of chlorine byproducts they allow in drinking water, and Don Wilge says there are other things that can be done to mitigate the harmful effects of chlorination.

WILGE: Certainly at the level of the treatment plants, you know, careful monitoring of the use of chlorine, pretreatment of the water to remove a lot of the organic material, ultimately means filtration, sedimentation. And, finally, at the point of use in the home, consumers can consider using carbon filters. They remove virtually all of the chlorinated byproducts.

(Flowing water)

CARTY: For now, the people of Erickson, British Columbia, are very blessed. Few Canadian communities have this quality of source water to start with. Erickson reminds us of the importance of protecting that source water. And it's also helped stimulate a debate about the risks of a chemical that can hurt as well as help. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Erickson, British Columbia.

(Flowing water; fade to music up and under: Pajamazon, "Acid Rain")

CURWOOD: Coming up: Repercussions of the Bush administration's rejection of the global warming treaty. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this animal update with Maggie Villiger.



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