This past spring, uproar was felt throughout the Kittery community about implementation of chloramines into the water supply as a new disinfectant.

Over 200 community members who had heard about the potential use of chloramines, a combination of ammonia and chlorine, in the water supply attended a presentation by the Kittery Water District (KWD).

Soon after, some residents from the neighboring town of Eliot who also source their water from the KWD also became upset and spoke out about this issue. After enough public outcry, the KWD decided it would not use chloramines to disinfect their water, and instead only use chloramine when they must borrow water from other towns during maintenance. This situation highlights the gray lines in which we must decide what kind of risk substances such as chloramine have. On one hand, this chemical is deemed safe by the EPA and is used in towns like York to disinfect their water, but on the other hand there is a severe lack of testing of this substance.

The addition of chloramines into our drinking water is nothing new. There has been a recent trend in the past few decades of replacing chlorine with chloramines as a cost-effective secondary disinfectant that eliminates the known byproducts of chlorine. Experts from the EPA have claimed that chloramine is safe for consumption in drinking water and that one in five Americans now drink water that contains chloramine. That having been said, chloramine has not been studied nearly as intensely as chlorine has been. Chloramine has been found to lead to an increase in lead contamination if the water system is not properly implementing corrosion control. Chloramine’s byproducts also have not been thoroughly researched and are likely more toxic than those of chlorine. The chemical’s use has also been under flak from various communities throughout the United States and has been banned in multiple European nations. Despite this outburst, both the CDC and EPA both label chloramine as a safe substance in drinking water.

But what does this mean for Kittery and Eliot? Should we take the advice of the experts in our government, or should we take our own precautions?

Our government’s system for approaching these chemicals is through risk assessment, a process that can take many years. This process attempts to scientifically prove whether a substance is a public danger. Even if it is seen as such, these scientists conducting tests on chloramine are likely to have very little contact with the substance in their own personal lives and fail to consider the impact chloramine could have over longer spans of time.

How did some European countries decide to ban the use of chloramine then? They use the precautionary principle, which means that before they have hard evidence that this chemical is harmful, they ban it in order to protect the citizens. Rather than the EPA’s system of using a substance until it is proven not safe, the European Union bans potentially harmful substances until they are proven to be safe.

The most difficult situations are ones where there are no definitive answers. It’s hard to decisively say if Kittery and Eliot made the right choice in avoiding chloramines. We live in a country where the federal governmental system for identifying risk is sometimes slow to act despite the possibility of serious long-term consequences. Sometimes our system works, but sometimes, like in the case of Kittery and Eliot, it’s best for us to have these conversations with local authorities and stick by what we believe is right.


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