Disinfecting water or infecting Rockland County residents?

Jade Cohen '17

Jade Cohen ’17

The Suez water company issued a notice April 5 regarding exceeded levels of trihalomethanes in the Rockland County, New York water system, according to rocklandtimes.com. Although the levels have returned to normal, this Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) Violation has raised concerns about the use of chlorine to disinfect water.  
In March, Suez tested water from two of the system’s locations in the Haverstraw area.
Suez determines if the standard for total trihalomethanes (80 micrograms per liter) is exceeded by averaging all the samples collected at each sampling location for the past 12 months. The concentrations of total trihalomethanes averaged at the two locations from the second quarter of 2015 through the first quarter of 2016 were 80.6 micrograms per liter and 84.2 micrograms per liter, according to the notice. 

Jade Cohen '17
Jade Cohen ’17

The reaction between chlorine and organic materials naturally present in water produces trihalomethanes, which are a group of four chemicals (chloroform, bromoform, bromodichloromethane, chlorodibromomethane), according to the notice. Disinfecting water is necessary for maintaining a clean supply for consumers, according to rocklandtimes.com. Abnormally high levels of trihalomethanes, however, can result in cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects, according to ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
The notice states that the “disinfection of drinking water by chlorination is beneficial to public health… [because it] kill[s] bacteria and viruses that could cause serious illnesses.” According to who.int, the use of chlorine to eliminate bacteria in drinking water often takes precedence over the health concerns of trihalomethanes. 
Although concerning to residents, Suez does not consider this situation an emergency according to their acceptable standards. The notice states that the standard level “is set at a water concentration at which exposure is much lower than exposures identified as causing health effects in studies of laboratory animals.”
Testing animals is problematic, however, because safe levels for humans may be different. 
Upper School Science Teacher Dr. Kristina Gremski is a resident of Rockland County and received the notice Suez issued. 
“As soon as people heard that [trihalomethanes] cause cancer and reproductive problems, many of the local pregnant women and moms of young children started getting extremely stressed out,” Dr. Gremski said.
As a member of the Facebook group Rockland Mommies, Dr. Gremski witnessed the concerns of the Rockland community on social media, such as the pros and cons of using chlorine as a disinfectant. 
According to Dr. Gremski, a Rockland mother expressed concern regarding her use of hot steam for her newborn since trihalomethane absorption increases when the chemicals are in the gaseous state of matter.  
Methods of consumption and exposure impact the level of danger that trihalomethanes pose to humans. Low ventilation rates in houses and high rates of showering and bathing increase exposure to trihalomethanes. These types of environments should ideally have a lower MCL of 30 micrograms per liter, according to who.int
The Flint, Michigan water supply contained the same group of four chemicals found in the Rockland County water, but at much higher levels. According to Dr. Gremski, even though the Rockland County water contamination was relatively minor, people are already sensitive after the Flint contamination and have become more mistrustful of the companies that handle water.
According to who.int, “these four compounds usually occur together, [and] it has been the practice to consider total [trihalomethanes] as a group, and a number of countries have set guidelines or standards on this basis.”
Water companies, such as Suez, set limits that they know are reasonable to avoid frequently exceeding them, which has the potential to threaten the health of consumers. 
“I want to know whether the maximum allowable limit is really safe. As I was reading into it, I found that sometimes the limits that are set are based on what government agencies feel is achievable as opposed to ideally safe,” Dr. Gremski said.
– Jade Cohen, Opinions Editor