The Politics of Chlorine

Published January 15, 1996

A little-noticed provision of the recently passed Senate Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) reauthorization bill is expected to unleash a storm of protest from state and local public health officials who are fearful that the provision would increase the vulnerability of the nation’s drinking water to microbiological contamination.

The Senate bill, S. 1316, has been widely hailed as a constructive step toward real reform of an environmental statute generally viewed as unduly cumbersome and in need of a thorough overhaul. Among other things, the bill grants local governments increased flexibility in meeting Federal drinking water standards and requires EPA to conduct risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses of proposed Federal water quality regulations (see EPA WATCH, November 30, 1995, p. 3).

But regarding mandatory cost-benefit analysis, the bill makes one notable exception: In an effort to secure Clinton administration support for S. 1316, and avoid a possible Presidential veto, the bill specifically exempts a controversial set of regulations proposed by EPA in 1994 from cost-benefits analysis.

The regulations in question concern what are known as “disinfections by-products” or DBPs (also referred to as disinfectants/ disinfection by-products or D/DBPs). DBPs are formed when chlorine, used as a water disinfectant, combines with other organic compounds (including decomposing leaves and other natural materials) that are in raw water to form chlorinated, organic compounds such as chloroform. Even though their health effects are largely unknown, EPA, citing hypothetical cancer risks resulting from exposure to DBPS, has proposed a rule that would require water systems across the country to eliminate the process known as predisinfection as a means of controlling DBPS.

But in proposing a rule that, if implemented, would seriously call into question the practice of water chlorination, EPA has incurred the wrath of public health officials throughout the country. These officials fear that the agency’s proposed rule would make chlorination of drinking water prohibitively expensive, costing water systems an addition $4 billion a year. Small water systems might be forced to abandon chlorination altogether, forcing them to adopt alternative treatment methods. But these have their own by-products and health risks which would have to be evaluated.

For their part, chlorine and chlorinated compounds have been used as a disinfectant in the U.S. for nearly 100 years. As a result of water chlorination, deaths from such waterborne diseases as cholera and typhoid fever, which once numbered in the tens of thousands annually, have been virtually eliminated in the U.S. By contrast, in developing countries where chlorination is unknown, an estimated 25,000 people die every day from diseases associated with dirty water, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Indeed, the WHO has made drinking water chlorination its top priority in the 1990s.

“More Harm Than Good”

In light of the role water chlorination has played in protecting public health in the U.S., it is not surprising that public health officials have been virtually unanimous in rejecting EPA’s DBP proposal. In written comments submitted to the agency, these officials have been unrelenting in warning of the dire consequences of EPA’s proposed rule:

As you are aware, chlorine is a broad spectrum disinfectant that when properly used is very effective at eliminating pathogens. Regulation that would eliminate the use of chlorination process would do more harm than good. Please proceed cautiously and scientifically when setting any new drinking water standards.” (–Donald Seppi, Lake County Florida Department of Health & Land Use Administration [12/1/94])

It is apparent from the text that this rule was prepared by a committee comprised of persons with different goals and purposes. Many sections are irrelevant and serve little or no purpose. . . . I feel if this rule is adopted as written, it will reduce research in this area because of its inflexibility. . . . The costs associated with this rule are excessive due to the micromanagement of EPA and the reduction of flexibility for state programs. (–Ralph Gavin, Kansas Department of Health and Environment [12/27/94])

It seems ironic that this regulation, which is intended to reduce by-products from water treatment, mandates the addition of ‘additional’ chemicals to achieve that task. Furthermore, if implemented as written, this regulation will increase the vulnerability of the nation’s water systems to microbiological contamination due to the decreases in disinfection levels . . . (–Douglas Kinard, South Carolina Dept. of Health and Environmental Control [12/21/94])

Reducing chlorine levels in public water systems poses an immediate and significant threat to public health. . . . A conscientious health professional with experience in waterborne disease outbreaks should not support a rule which compromises public health. Please understand that reducing health effects from contaminants should be a concern to all, but (potentially) decreasing risk in one area and increasing it in an area with well known immediate health risks makes no sense. (–Robert Forbes, Florida Dept. of Health and Rehabilitative Services [12/6/95])

And what is perhaps the most colorful response:

[T]he reduction or elimination of chlorination of drinking water to reduce the risk of . . . disease, is analogous to reducing or eliminating air travel to protect people on the ground from being hit by failing aircraft parts! . . . [T]he Environmental Health staff wonders. . . have you gone NUTS? (–P.L. Montgomery, Richmond, North Carolina Health Department [12/8/94])

CBO’s Findings

Similar misgivings were expressed in a September 1995 study issued by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) titled “The Safe Drinking Water Act: A Case Study of an Unfunded Mandate.” The CBO report acknowledged that EPA “is uncertain about how much the risk of cancer would be reduced by the proposed D/DBP rule.”

Equally troublesome for the CBO are the agency’s wide range of estimates for the average cost per cancer case avoided by the proposed DBP rule. As a result of the extraordinarily high level of uncertainty regarding DBPS, EPA’s estimates range from $867,000 to an astonishing 19 billion to avoid one hypothetical case of cancer.

The comments from public health officials, together with the CBO’s study, strongly suggest the reason the provision was inserted into S. 1316 is that, without the exemption, the agency’s DBP rule would never have survived a cost-benefit analysis. Moreover, the enormous costs associated with the EPA’s DBP proposal have raised the specter among local officials that the rule, just as the CBO feared, could end up being just the kind of unfunded mandate that Congress, through legislation signed into law by President Clinton last year, sought to prevent.

Aware that the exemption of the DBP rule from cost-benefit analysis could prove to be by far the most expensive provision of the SDWA bill, staffers on the House Commerce Committee are looking for ways to deal with this politically delicate matter. There is a lot of pressure to come up with a bill that, like its Senate counterpart, has broad enough bipartisan support so that it will sail through the House as easily as S. 1316 cleared the Senate.

What makes the House’s task difficult is how the provision came about in the Senate. According to sources, it was Sen. John Chafee, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who insisted that the controversial DBP provision be included in S. 1316.

Senators who objected to excluding EPA’S rule from cost-benefit analysis were told, in no uncertain terms, that the provision was the “link pin” for getting Democratic and White House support for the measure. Sources familiar with the events agree that it was EPA that was behind on the provision. If those pressures prevail in the House, eliminating the DBP could prove a tricky undertaking.

Extensive Hearings Scheduled

One opportunity to bring the issue to the public’s attention will be a hearing before the House Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Health and the environment scheduled for January 31. Sources have assured EPA WATCH that the DBP issue, and its implications for public health and the financial well-being of the nation’s drinking water systems, will play a prominent part in those hearings. Given the delicacy of the matter, additional hearings on the matter may be held.

EPA Watch is a twice-monthly survey of environmental regulatory activities undertaken by the EPA, the Department of the Interior, OSHA, the White House, the U.S. Congress, and federal, state, and local agencies. This article originally appeared in the January 15, 1996 issue of that publication.