Starting Tuesday, the Nipomo Community Services District will switch from using chlorine to chloramine to disinfect its water — a move that district officials say is safe but that prompted outcry from celebrity environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who claimed the water would be more toxic.
The disinfectant is already used by about one-third of water providers in San Luis Obispo County, and both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and State Water Resources Control Board say water treated with chloramine, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, is safe for general use when monitored correctly.
Chloramine is typically used to disinfect water with more organic compounds in it — such as surface water from lakes and rivers — because it is less likely to form disinfection byproducts that are potentially harmful, Nipomo services district General Manager Michael LeBrun said Monday.
Chloramines have been in use in this country for more than 90 years, he added.
LeBrun said the district decided to switch to chloramine to maintain consistency in the water supply received from the city of Santa Maria through the district’s new supplemental water pipeline, which began delivering water in July.
The switch in disinfectants in Nipomo caught the eye of Brockovich, who took to Facebook over the weekend to denounce the change.
"YOU ARE BEING LIED TO!" she wrote in a widely circulated Facebook post on Friday. "TRUTH... Chloramine is a slower and much weaker disinfectant. Further ... the chlorine breaks down but the ammonia does not. ... It becomes food for the biofilm and bacteria in the water pipes, your water heaters and your homes. I could go on and on ... when will they just stop lying?"
Brockovich went on to claim that adding ammonia to the water makes it more dangerous.
Brockovich is best known for her work building a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in 1993, alleging that the company leaked toxic chemicals into the town of Hinkley's groundwater for more than 30 years. The story resulted in PG&E paying a more than $333 million settlement, the largest ever paid in a direct action lawsuit in U.S. history. Her efforts inspired the Julia Roberts movie bearing her name.
Since then, Brockovich has become an outspoken environmental activist, especially regarding water pollution.
“Now you will be exposed to toxins potentially 10,000 times more toxic than the byproducts formed by chlorine alone,” she wrote in Friday’s Facebook post. “And as for the fluoride ... do your own research. ... What a ridiculous waste and frankly ... damn shame.”
As of Monday afternoon, the post had been shared more than 1,500 times, with more than 1,020 likes. Requests for comment from Brockovich on her website and social media pages were not returned Monday.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than one in five Americans uses drinking water treated with chloramines. The disinfectant is both approved and regulated by the EPA for use in creating safe drinking water.
In San Luis Obispo County, about a third of water providers treat their water with chloramine, said Jeff Densmore, District 6 supervisor for the State Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water Programs. District 6 encompasses San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Densmore said most residents in the Five Cities area receive chloraminated water through the Lopez Water project, as do residents in Morro Bay and agencies that receive state water.
Though it can be of concern to people undergoing at-home dialysis treatments because the water comes in direct contact with the blood, and it is toxic to fish and aquatic life because it blocks their gills, Densmore said chloraminated water is safe for general use, provided that it is monitored correctly.
The state Division of Drinking Water Programs monitors disinfection methods used throughout California, and water providers are required to send in monthly reports showing they are correctly monitoring the disinfection process.
Densmore said that when using chloramines, there is a risk of nitrification when ammonia does not correctly bond with the chlorine and remains in the water to oxidize. This can increase the amount of bacteria in the water, he said, though in most cases it is not a public health risk.
“This water is also filtered and disinfected at treatment facilities before the chloramines, or residual disinfectants, are added, so the public health concern is low,” he said.
With correct monitoring, water treatment agencies can identify the “early signs” of nitrification and take action to stop it before there is a risk to the public, Densmore said.
In Nipomo’s case, LeBrun asserted that chloramine is a safe method of disinfecting water, with fewer byproducts than just using chlorine.
As of Monday morning, he said, the district had received about a dozen calls regarding Brockovich’s Facebook post.
“I’m a bit discouraged that this misinformation has put fear in any of our customers that this method is not safe, and put a damper on what should be a very exciting time for our community,” he said. “This is the first time in 50 years that we are bringing in outside water into the community, and it’s disheartening that some people are now afraid.”