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    Chloramine will alter tap water's taste, odor

    Drinking water will be treated with chloramine, a disinfectant, in May. It's safe but has a downside.

    [Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
    Eric Webber, owner of Eric's New World Bistro in Palm Harbor, holds a glass, left, filled with Pinellas County tap water and another filled with Tampa city water treated using chloramine.

    By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 3, 2002


    On the table in front of chef Eric Webber sat two wine goblets filled with tap water.

    Just as he might before doing a wine-tasting, Webber squeezed an orange slice into his mouth. The slightly acidic orange would clear his palate of any residual oils, he said.

    One glass contained Pinellas County's current brew, which uses minuscule amounts of chlorine to disinfect the water. The second glass held tap water from Tampa, which disinfects its water with similarly tiny amounts of chloramine, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia.

    Pinellas County residents are going to want to pay attention to the results of this taste test. Because after years of using chlorine as the disinfectant of choice, Pinellas County utilities is switching to chloramine in May.

    Webber swirled the glasses and tipped them toward his nose to catch a whiff of the water's "bouquet," or aroma. That was enough.

    "I can tell the difference already," said Webber, 36, who owns Eric's New World Bistro in Palm Harbor. "I can smell more chlorine in this one. As soon as I swirled this one, I said this one has the chlorine."

    His professional opinion: The water with chlorine tasted better.

    "Even though this one smells more offensive, I think it tastes better," he said of the Pinellas County water.

    Pinellas officials know residents most likely will detect a difference in the taste and odor of their tap water when the change goes in effect in May. It will smell and taste less like chlorine. That's because chloramine is basically chlorine diluted with ammonia, and the resulting mixture isn't as pungent as straight chlorine.

    "When ammonia is combined with chlorine, it's like smothering the fire a little bit," said Bob Powell, director of Pinellas County utilities laboratory department.

    Pinellas County supplies water to about two-thirds of county residents. It sells water directly to residents in the unincorporated areas, Largo, Kenneth City, Seminole and beach towns, and sells water wholesale to Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor and Oldsmar. The city of St. Petersburg and portions of Pasco County also will start using chloramine in May.

    The change is coming because Tampa Bay Water, the wholesale supplier of water to the region, is going to chloramine in May. Tampa Bay Water will add chloramine to the water it distributes, and local water suppliers will have to add a bit more before pumping it to customers, said Pinellas County utilities director Pick Talley.

    Northwest Hillsborough County switched from chlorine to chloramine last fall, affecting about 100,000 customers. Since the switch, Tampa Bay Water has received no complaints about taste.

    "I've talked to a lot of people who live there and a lot of them said they didn't notice a change at all," said Michelle Robinson, spokeswoman for Tampa Bay Water.

    The reason for the switch, officials say, is to keep up with new stricter federal drinking water quality standards.

    The water Tampa Bay Water sells to its customers already complies with all standards, Robinson said. But new regulations are going to require the reduction of suspected cancer-causing compounds such as trihalomethanes, or THMs. That is a byproduct created when chlorine mixes with organic material in water.

    Changing from chlorine to chloramine is the least expensive way to reduce THMs from the water, Powell said.

    "The bottom line is reducing THMs is a good thing," Powell said. "The quality of water will be good and meet federal requirements. It's going to be safe and the customers will notice less chlorine. So overall, it's a reasonable approach to the process."

    Officials say the important thing for residents to know is that chloramine is a federally approved disinfectant that has been used by Tampa and many other cities for decades. Other than the slightly different taste and odor, chloraminated water is no different from the tap water residents now drink.

    "Really, in the scheme of things from the water quality and a water safety issue, it's no big deal," Talley said. "The big thing is a significant number of people will notice an odor and taste difference."

    Another difference that residents will have to know is chloramine has to be removed from the water used in kidney dialysis machines and from water used in fish tanks and ponds.

    Starting in May, medical facilities will have to modify their machines to remove the chemical before using tap water in dialysis machines. That's because chloramines can be harmful if they enter the bloodstream directly.

    Pet stores and the owners of fish aquariums will have to remove chloramines from the water because ammonia can be toxic to saltwater and freshwater fish.

    "The big thing is fish, people with aquariums," Robinson said. "We need to make sure everyone knows that."

    Removing chloramine from water used in fish tanks will be easy because there already are water conditioners in the market that remove the substance, said Jason Maddox, general manager of Aquatic Wonders Aquarium in Pinellas Park. The most important thing fish owners need to do is check the water conditioner or water filter they are using to make sure the filters can remove chloramine.

    Since Pinellas began mailing out fliers about the change, Aquatic Wonders has received more than a dozen calls a day from aquarium owners wondering what they have to do. The store reassures them the change is nothing to worry about.

    "It really doesn't have an effect on us," Maddox said. "If you go up north, everybody has chloramine in the water. It's very normal."

    The change will have at least one effect on the utility department.

    Using chloramine will require additional monitoring and flushing of the county's water system to make sure customers do not receive stale water.

    When water sits in pipes too long, chlorine can break down, losing its effectiveness. That's why the pipes must be flushed and restocked with fresher water. With chloramine, if the compound breaks down, the process produces trace amounts of ammonia and nitrate in the water.

    That may cause an odor.

    "It won't be putrid," Talley said. "But you will notice something different."

    County officials are working with a consultant to come up with a monitoring and flushing plan for the new disinfectant, which will be especially important in low-use areas where water has a higher likelihood of sitting in pipes for several days.

    "Since we have a good plan in place and we are aware of what's happening, I don't think we will see any problems at all," Powell said. "We should be able to handle this very easily. I expect this to be a nonevent."

    The use of chloramine in Pinellas County water could really become a nonevent if the county built a proposed $100-million advanced treatment plant.

    That's because the plant would remove the organic compounds from the water, negating the need for chloramine. Last month, however, the County Commission delayed a vote to proceed with study and design work on the plant.

    To further explore the taste difference between the two disinfectants, seven St. Petersburg Times employees took part in a blind taste test last week. Five preferred the water with chloramine. One favored Pinellas's current water. One didn't like either.

    As chef Eric says, "everyone has their own palate."

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