Chlorine Tests Stir New Water Fears: High Concentrations of Carcinogen Found

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By Barrington Salmon

THE WASHINGTON TIMES The District's drinking-water blues continue.

Tests done by an independent environmental group last week revealed that the city's treated tap water is rife with high levels of cancer-causing chlorine byproducts.

The tests, conducted by the Environmental Working Group, were done in response to increased chlorine that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers added to the drinking water last week to battle coliform bacteria.

"It's not good news at all," Brian Cohen, an analyst with the Environmental Working Group, said at a press conference yesterday. "A real concern is that this highlights our problem. The byproducts, called trihalomethanes, have been hovering at or near the the top for years. Increased chlorine levels makes it worse."

The group - a coalition of local organizations that focus on water-safety issues - took five water samples from Mayor Marion Barry's One Judiciary Square office; D.C. General Hospital; the U.S. Capitol; the Environmental Protection Agency; and an unidentified downtown office building.

Trihalomethanes were found in concentrations of 153 parts per billion (ppb) at the mayor's office, 131 ppb at the hospital, 118 ppb at the Capitol, 133 ppb at the EPA and 109 ppb at the downtown office.

Last week, the city and the EPA signed a consent decree and administrative order. The agreement tightens control of all aspects of city's management of the tap-water system, and offers the city technical and other assistance to improve the water quality.

"The city is on the right track with the consent order signed last week," Mr. Cohen said. "But we have to make sure that when we upgrade our drinking-water system, we reduce the levels of these highly toxic carcinogens."

Richard Wiles, vice president of research for the environmental group, said even under normal circumstances, trihalomethanes are found at high levels and pose a significant cancer risk for residents of the city.

But he added that "the results may be higher than usual because of the additional chlorine that was added to the water system."

Dr. Vinod R. Moody, professor of medicine and chief of Howard University Hospital's Division of Infectious Diseases, added a word of caution. While there's reason for concern, there's no reason for the public to panic, he said.

"A healthy person can drink the water, but not for many years," he said. "I don't drink the water because I had a liver transplant. I'd say drink the water unless you take steroids, have arthritis or are on certain types of medication. …