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Vermont water treatment facilities are considering the use of chloramine as a disinfectant to cheaply meet new EPA standards, but this may make drinking water more dangerous.

Water treatment facilities across the country are changing the way they purify drinking water to comply with EPA regulations that will take effect this year. Already strapped for cash while recovering from a natural disaster amidst a recession, Vermont towns are following a national trend of considering low-cost means of meeting the new standard–means that may make drinking water more dangerous. Local officials are aware of growing public concern, but are faced with a lack of realistic alternatives.

Chlorine has been used to purify drinking water for over a hundred years. While effective at killing bacteria and viruses, chlorine also releases carcinogens called disinfection byproducts (DBPs) in the water when it interacts with organic matter. Out of concern for public health, the EPA has regulated the acceptable level of DBPs in drinking water since 1998, with stricter standards coming into effect on April 1st of this year.

Attempting to achieve compliance on tight budgets, many Vermont towns are using or considering chloramine as an alternative disinfectant to chlorine. While ten times cheaper than any other option, adding chloramine to drinking water introduces health risks that may undermine its cost-efficiency. Chloramine creates byproducts of its own called nitrosamines that are arguably far more toxic than DBPs and can lead to the deterioration of aging pipes and faucets, causing lead to leach into drinking water.

Public health officials are aware of these risks, prompting some to actively discourage discussion of chloramine in public hearings to avoid an outcry, which has only furthered public discontent. In 2006, when chloramine was first introduced to the Vermont water supply, the public voiced concern, even attracting attention from the Center of Disease Control, as people experienced skin, digestion and breathing problems after using the treated water. However, public officials maintain that the benefits outweigh the risks. As the deadline for compliance draws near and city officials fixate on their budgetary constraints, many Vermonters argue that the cheap fix is making drinking water more dangerous, negating the EPA’s goal of protecting public health.