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Chlorine in water may imperil pregnancies

Monday, September 21, 2009

Los Angeles Daily News, Lisa Mascaro

Published January 9, 2002

Drinking tap water could put pregnant women at higher risk for miscarriage and birth defects in some parts of Southern California, says a report released Tuesday by two environmental groups.

In Ventura County's Casitas Municipal Water District, there's a 1 in 4 chance that during three months of pregnancy a woman will drink water with chlorination byproducts that could increase her risk of bearing an unhealthy child.

Burbank had a one-time spike of byproducts which, though not as well understood as long-term exposure, raises questions about taking a tall drink from the faucet.

"People shouldn't be freaking out about their water supply (but) it's definitely something pregnant women should know about," said Renee Sharp, an analyst with the California office of the Environmental Working Group, which released the report with U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Tuesday's study is the first-ever nationwide look at the byproducts of chlorination -- a widely used public health tool to reduce water-borne disease.

And while chlorine can help saves lives, it combines with runoff, sewage or other elements to create trihalomethane (THM), which in high levels left pregnant women almost twice as likely to have a miscarriage than those with little exposure, according to a state Department of Health study.

The study found that 137,000 women across the country are at elevated risk of miscarriage or having children with birth defects because of the water they may choose to drink.

Statewide, 5,400 pregnant women statewide could be exposed to higher risk, half from the San Francisco area, ranking California ninth in the nation.

The report looked at the amount of THM above the new federal limit of 80 parts per billion over a three-month period.

But before turning off the tap and switching to bottled water, researchers suggest using a filtration system to stop the gunk from getting into the glass.

And they want policymakers to clean up waterways so water districts won't need to rely on chlorination to purify the supply coming from the faucet.

"The larger public policy point we're trying to make is that's really putting the cart after the horse," said Bill Walker, EWG's West Coast vice president. "Why don't we keep the water clean before it gets into the system rather than putting chemicals in it to try to clean it up?"

Casitas Municipal Water District, which serves a population of 60,000 in the areas of Ventura, Ojai and Oak View, ranked fifth in the state with the number of pregnancies that could be exposed to increased risk.

That's 211 pregnancies -- one in four -- in Casitas at risk for exposure to the higher levels, the study said.

"It's high enough that women might be concerned, or at least they should know about it," Sharp said. "We're not saying those women will definitely have a miscarriage or birth defect. We're saying that their risks are significantly higher."

Casitas General Manager John Johnson said the district recently awarded $2.75 million in contracts for a new treatment process to reduce the byproducts.

He disputed the number of women possibly at higher risk, saying that high levels of chlorine were mostly found in the small coastal community of Rincon, with about 200 customers.

"I think that the problem that we're facing is a problem a lot of people face," Johnson said. "I don't think the fact that we came up on their list very high is as much (of a problem) because of the few number of folks that are affected, and we will have it taken care of in the next six months, even for those few number of people."

Burbank's one-time spike -- its level is typically within allowable limits -- should cause no alarm, said Burbank Water and Power's Fred Lantz.

On the tally of areas with spiked rates, Burbank ranked third with 180 ppb in 1996. Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power had a one-time spike in May 2000 of 124.4 ppb, ranking it 12th on that statewide list.

"Spikes are of concern because they may very well have significant effect. There hasn't been a lot of research done on the issue so it's worrisome," said Sharp. "Even if it's only for a couple of days, what kind of effect is that having? It could trigger something we don't really know."

Some water suppliers are experimenting with alternatives to chlorination -- Casitas' new system will use an alternative that adds ammonia -- that researchers said show promise also could lead to other possible problems not fully resolved.

Researchers called on the state to set a stricter drinking water standard, expand health tracking and fund utilities to upgrade treatment systems.

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