That chlorine smell means trouble in D.C.'s water

By Rose Overbey
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tuesday was a typical spring morning. I woke, went to the gym and came home to shower. As the water washed over me, I went through my normal routine of thinking through my outfit for the day. But my choice of polka dots or stripes was disrupted by an overwhelming odor -- the strong scent of chlorine in the water.

Many people in Northwest D.C. were probably alarmed by the smell as they washed their faces, brushed their teeth and prepared breakfast that morning. At 10:30 a.m., an advisory was issued, warning customers in Northwest neighborhoods not to use water because of a higher-than-normal chlorine concentration.

In fact, the chlorine concentration has been higher than usual since Feb. 1, when the Washington Aqueduct changed the disinfectant used in its water treatment process from chloramine to chlorine. The advisory was lifted later Tuesday, but Washingtonians will still be stuck with high chlorine levels -- and the accompanying smell -- until May 17.

The temporary switch from chloramine to chlorine isn't anything new, but the duration of it is. Each year, the city's pipes are flushed with extra chlorine for about a month, but this time the process will last three and a half months. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which takes care of the D.C. water supply, considers this extension necessary to clean up the pipes in the system.

The recent water main break on Massachusetts Avenue and residents' fears of pipes bursting during "Snowmageddon" serve as a reminder that many of the lines are old and may be in danger of failing. Unfortunately, a tight budget at the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, combined with a need to allocate most of the money toward wastewater cleanup, means it may be a while before every old pipe is replaced.

The chlorine efficiently kills germs in those old pipes, but when it comes out of the faucet, it remains a powerful chemical. I recognize that WASA must clean the city's pipes, but extended higher levels of chlorine raise a number of concerns.

WASA recommends letting tap water sit out a couple minutes before drinking it to allow the chlorine to evaporate -- but what about bathing and hand washing? That chlorine smell sticks around for a reason. It's because chlorine is absorbed into your skin.

In a hot shower, your pores open, allowing the chlorine to soak in and wreak havoc with your skin's natural oils. The same thing happens to hair. Have you ever noticed how your hands wrinkle quickly in a pool? The chlorine is drying them out. And that's just what it does to the outside of your body.

As a chemical, chlorine can interact with other chemicals to produce potentially dangerous chlorination byproducts. The Environmental Protection Agency's Web site cites a group of studies that show "an association between bladder and rectal cancer and chlorination byproducts in drinking water." Chlorination byproducts act as powerful irritants to the respiratory system. A study from a team in Brussels identified a link between the amount of time children spend in chlorinated pools with higher rates of asthma.

Chlorine levels in pools and our water supply are regulated because of known risks. But WASA's most recent charts of chlorine levels show that the water flowing through our pipes is already teetering close to the maximum levels recommended for pools, let alone for drinking water.

Pipes might be able to handle the extra chlorine for three and a half months, but should people have to? Many health-conscious D.C. residents try to use organic products and eat organic foods, but the water we get from our taps is far from organic -- and this extra flush of chlorine, while helping to keep our aging system running, might not be doing the same to our bodies.

This Tuesday was a warning that during these flushes we are constantly on the edge of reaching dangerously high levels of chlorine in our water. For the sake of its customers, WASA needs to decrease its dependency on chlorine flushes and put a higher priority on replacing antiquated pipes.

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