But since 2004 — the year that local water boards started adding chloramine to the water as a disinfectant — some local residents have lost all confidence in the water and in claims that it is safe.
According to Denise Johnson-Kula of Menlo Park, she broke out into a rash in 2004 and almost died from the effects of chloramine on her lungs during a shower. She now drives to Morgan Hill every week to shower at a relative's house.
As the issue gains more press, people are reporting their problems and concerns to Johnson-Kula and her group, Citizens Concerned About Chloramine, or CCAC. So far, 300 people have documented effects of chloramine to CCAC. These effects range from mild to severe, Johnson-Kula said, with about a third showing severe effects, such as coughing, wheezing, asthma, or blistered and bleeding skin rash.
Mountain View resident Louise Kilkenny has found she is sensitive to chloraminated water. She has lived in her home near Los Altos High School since 1953, and says she never had a problem with the water until chloramine was added in 2004. After she bathed in the new water, she said, her skin turned chronically dry and itchy.
Her dermatologist recommended she bathe in the water as little as possible and use a water filter. She bought a shower-head water filter made by Culligan that she changes every month, but it doesn't completely solve the problem.
More effective filters are prohibitively expensive for most people, Johnson-Kula said.
During a recent trip to Alaska, Kilkenny said, she had no symptoms at all from bathing in the tap water. But upon returning to Mountain View, she was reminded of the telltale odor of chloramines in her home. Although not everyone can smell or taste chloramine, Kilkenny says she can even taste it in her food when tap water is used for cooking.
"Why did they ever figure out they had to do this in the first place?" she asked. "I don't know, but it doesn't make me very happy. If it isn't broke, leave it alone."
SFPUC made the call
The decision to treat Mountain View's water with chloramine was made by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which manages all Hetch Hetchy water. Shortly after that 2004 decision, the Santa Clara Valley Water District did the same. Other Bay Area water boards, including in Alameda and Marin, are also using chloramine. Sixty percent of the country is expected to convert in the near future, and another 30 percent is planning to switch eventually.
Among the reasons given for using chloramine is that it lasts longer than chlorine as a disinfectant, and is better at killing bacteria without releasing as many tri-halomethanes, which are suspected of causing cancer.
"There's a body of evidence that goes back decades that chloramine is safe in water," said SFPUC spokesman Tony Winnicker.
After two years of the chloramine controversy, Johnson-Kula says she still can't point to a study done on the effects of chloramine by either its proponents or opponents. The EPA admits that there have been no studies on its respiratory and dermal effects in drinking water.
State Assemblyman Ira Ruskin was unsuccessful in pushing a bill through this year to study chloramine in drinking water. The bill, AB2402, died after being held up in the appropriations committee due to cost issues. Ruskin's staff said a new version of the bill will be introduced next year.
The CCAC gained credibility last fall when the board of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, or BAWSCA, sent letters to various governmental agencies asking for studies to prove chloramine is safe. BAWSCA represents 26 cities receiving Hetch Hetchy water. The responses were "spurious" and did not cite scientific studies as proof, said Art Jensen, BAWSCA general manager.
Some studies, including one by the New Jersey Department of Health and another by the World Health Organization, do suggest that chloramine at higher levels affects people's skin and respiratory systems. But a general lack of studies done on chloraminated tap water, Johnson-Kula said, means that use of the chemical is really an experiment conducted on millions of people.
Range of effects
Some have reported severe reactions to drinking chloramine, such as Darlene Nappi of Sunnyvale, whose entire digestive system became inflamed. While in the hospital for gall bladder surgery, she was given food cooked in tap water and became sick again, until she had her husband bring in food prepared with bottled water.
Meanwhile, in Alameda, fish and frog habitat have been wiped out by broken water mains. And people with fish ponds and tanks lost fish in 2004, when they weren't informed that they'd need to take precautions with chloraminated water.
Johnson-Kula said thousands of people are probably effected by the water, especially older people, but don't know it or aren't sure. Kilkenny said she knows many older people in her neighborhood with problems and concerns. One of them is Miriam Hoppi, who said she went to her doctor believing chloramine was making her allergies more pronounced, but was told by her doctor that her body was producing too much histamine. Hoppi said antihistamines have helped her.
Johnson-Kula said it is typical for doctors to not consider that water is causing symptoms, especially when the symptoms suggest asthma or other allergies. Because of the effects on lungs, chloramine heightens people's sensitivity to allergies and respiratory problems, she said.