I live in Breckenridge, and have noticed lately that my water tastes and smells like chlorine. Does the town or county treat our water with it, and is it safe to drink?
Whether or not your water contains chlorine depends upon its original source and quality. Out of the U.S. population that uses community water systems, 32 percent of the water originates from ground water (i.e. wells) and 68 percent from surface water (i.e. rivers, lakes and reservoirs). Many of the ground water systems meet federal regulations without treatments needed to be applied. If you own a well, Summit County Environmental Health provides well water testing. Call (970) 668-4070 for information.
Surface water is exposed to direct weather runoff and the atmosphere, increasing the potential for contamination. Just considering the runoff from animal waste and lawn chemicals alone is enough to make you cringe. The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the necessity for disinfectants (like chlorine) but also notes that their exposure to ‘naturally occurring materials’ can react to cause potentially dangerous byproducts.
To discover the source of Summit County’s water and inquire about treatment methods, I paid a visit to the County Commons. They informed me that the community water systems vary from town to town. A simple way to learn more is to reference your local consumer confidence report. By federal and state laws, water suppliers must monitor and list any detected contaminants in the CCR. Breckenridge and most local municipalities use chlorine to fight waterborne diseases. There is also evidence of haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes, byproducts resulting from chlorine, in local water sources. While they are only present in miniscule amounts, these disinfectant byproducts may pose a risk to our health.
The EPA’s “Basic Information about Disinfectants in Drinking Water: Chloramine, Chlorine, and Chlorine Dioxide” cites that each can cause stomach discomfort and irritate your eyes and nose. There have been instances where pregnant woman, young children and infants experience nervous system effects due to overexposure of chlorinated water. Dr. Peter Montague, of the Environmental Research Foundation, says that studies have linked heavy chlorine consumption to higher miscarriage and birth defect rates.
The trick is for water suppliers to balance the risks from disinfection byproducts and the microbial pathogens found in our H2O. Since the early 1900s, chlorine has been hailed as a “savior” against waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery and hepatitis A. Chlorine lowers mortality rates and is cost effective. Unlike other disinfectants, chlorine fights bacteria from the treatment plant, through the distribution system (i.e. pipes), and all the way to your faucet.
It is reassuring to know that the Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to determine the level of disinfectants in which there will be no adverse health effects. The EPA has set enforceable regulations for disinfectants, known as MRDL (maximum residual disinfectant level). Should monitoring reveal levels above the MRDL, water suppliers must notify their customers. For chlorine dioxide, notice must be given no later than 24 hours after the water provider learns of the violation. Chloramine and chlorine violations must be recognized within 30 days.
Another hot button topic regarding water treatment is fluoridation. If curious please revisit my article “Ask Eartha: The Fluoride Controversy.”
Ultimately, chlorinated water becomes extremely diluted bleach when naturally-occurring sodium is present. If the odor and/or taste bothers you, there are a few remedies once the water has safely reached your home. Carbon-based filters are easily accessible and will remove the toxins. Combination systems can dechlorinate and soften your water. There is also the old fashioned method of leaving your water uncovered for 24 hours; allowing chlorine and other similar compounds to evaporate.
The most empowering way to combat chlorine byproducts is to become proactive. Cleaning up our streams, rivers and lakes will reduce the amount of pathogens at its source, therefore decreasing the need for chlorine as a disinfectant.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.