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Stillborn Waters

[whitespace] water & pregnant woman
Seventeen years after the infamous Fairchild case, what started as a story of one neighborhood's contaminated drinking wells has grown to a water district's nightmare, with far-reaching implications about the safety of drinking tap water treated with chlorine.

Photo-illustration by Christopher Gardner

Closely guarded studies have revealed that drinking tap water instead of bottled water can be extremely hazardous to a pregnant woman and her unborn child's health. And Santa Clara County's drinking water, for reasons scientists are struggling to explain, is even worse than the rest.

By Will Harper

WHEN A SOUTH SAN JOSE neighborhood near Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation recorded an alarmingly high number of birth defects and miscarriages in 1981, researcher Shanna Swan suspected it was just the beginning of a more complex problem than a solvent-contaminated well.

For one thing, as Swan studied the matter further she found that women living in a nearby neighborhood, exposed to more solvents in their water, had inexplicably lower rates of miscarriage than the first group. She also found women who abstained from tap water during pregnancy had reported no miscarriages at all.

Over the next 17 years, Swan, along with Kirsten Waller and other researchers at the California Department of Health Services, embarked on a series of studies aimed at finding out how water quality affects pregnancy. And this week, after media sources discovered the presence of the year-old documents, the state reluctantly released the results.

Based on interviews with 5,144 pregnant women in 1990 and 1991 at six hospitals, including the Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, the studies show that local women who drink five or more glasses of tap water a day double their risk of miscarriage. And women drinking from the tap in Santa Clara County, where water sometimes contains a higher amount of chlorine byproducts, have a miscarriage rate nearly triple those who exclusively drink bottled water.

Local water officials have expressed frustration with the state's sluggishness in going public with the findings. And researchers remain baffled and disturbed about why Santa Clara County tap water seems to be causing a higher rate of miscarriage than tap water in other areas of the state.


Chlorine may be a grave threat to human health

More about the Fairchild well-water contamination.

What else is in Silicon Valley's water?


Tap Dance

Two weeks ago, the state health department invited eight water officials from South Bay water companies, both public and private, to a confidential briefing at the Department of Health Services' office in Emeryville. The briefing's ostensible purpose was to give local suppliers a heads-up about information contained in the studies. But those who attended told Metro that they left Emeryville scarcely more informed and not knowing what to tell

worried customers. Water wonks also never got to read the full study; meeting organizers made sure they collected all documents before participants left.

The reason for the secrecy: State health officials had an exclusive publishing agreement with the scientific journal Epidemiology. The studies wouldn't be officially released until Feb. 18, when Epidemiology would print them in their entirety.

As it turns out, the studies were both written and completed one year ago. That means that the state health department sat on vital health data with far-reaching implications to honor a publishing agreement.

"It happens," observes Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "There's an ongoing debate in the public health community whether to release information people will need to protect themselves on one hand, versus releasing information that could needlessly alarm people. All too often, the don't-worry-be-happy attitude prevails. If it's true that tap water causes additional miscarriages, then that is a major public health disaster."

Ken August, a spokesman for the health department, defended the information embargo as a standard part of the "peer review" process where other scientists review studies for soundness. When Metro contacted him last week about the studies, before the mainstream press had caught wind of the story, he sidestepped questions about the ethics of delaying release of the data that could prevent mothers from losing their babies.

"You're trying to get information out of me, and you're not going to get it," August scolded.

Meanwhile, local water officials were in a near-panic. Unable to get their hands on the studies, they feared that the state's failure to show them the data wouldn't allow them to answer the $64,000 question: "Is it safe to drink the water?"

Monday afternoon their worst fear came true: Reporters from around the state began calling that day to ask about the risks of drinking tap water. Water officials still hadn't seen the studies.

Late Monday night, after Metro broke the story on its Web site, a KTVU reporter asked local water district spokeswoman Christy Adams whether or not she would feel safe drinking water from the tap if she were pregnant. After a brief but loaded pause, Adams explained that the district didn't have all the information yet.

"It's just irresponsible on their part," Adams told Metro in an interview the following day, criticizing the state's refusal to share the data with water agencies earlier.

But researcher Kirsten Waller says the practice of acquiescing to exclusive publication demands is not uncommon in the world of scientific research. "Journals do not like to have embargoes disregarded," she says. "It's their business. Some publications are extremely strict about embargoes; some will not ever publish you again."

Still a Mystery

PARTICULARLY DISTURBING for Santa Clara County was the revelation that women who drank tap water were almost three times as likely to miscarry as women who drank the same amount of bottled water. Researchers also found that Santa Clara County showed the strongest relationship between miscarriage and consumption of tap water containing certain chemical chlorination byproducts called trihalomethanes or THMs, known carcinogens.

All water suppliers are required to regularly test for THMs, and according to the Santa Clara Valley Water District, local water currently meets federal safety standards.

In the Santa Clara study, researchers noted a high concentration of a particularly strong THM, called bromodichloromethane (BRO-mo-DYE-kloro-METH-ane), which they suspect may be the reason for the higher rate of miscarriages noted in the study. (Santa Clara County's overall rate of miscarriage is slightly lower than the rest of the state.)

Bromodichloromethane occurs due to the infusion of salt water into some sources of surface water used by water agencies. Waller said health officials have "very little previous information" on this THM, and this is the first study to look at it in relation to miscarriage.

"It could be something else in the water down here," Waller allows. "It looks like it might explain part of it, but not all of it. There might be two or more separate things going on, one of which is bromodichloromethane and the other of which is still a mystery."

Dr. Ken Cantor, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, points out that THMs represent only 30 percent to 50 percent of all chlorination byproducts in water. "It's possible that the nasty stuff is not THMs," he says, adding that there are hundreds of other compounds related to chlorination. "Some of them have been tested, but there are hundreds which have not been tested."

Could the link between bottled water and low miscarriages indicate affluence and accompanying access to better prenatal care rather than a water problem? Waller says that during the course of the study, researchers found no correlation between economic status and tap-water consumption. She said study participants in 1990 and 1991--both those who drank tap water and those who drank exclusively bottled water--came from affluent as well as lower-income areas.

water & pregnant woman
The list of things a pregnant mother should avoid seems endless these days. Tobacco. Alcohol. Narcotics. Caffeine. X-rays. Shellfish. Computer screens. Electric blankets. In the near future doctors may be warning expectant mothers of yet another possible threat to their unborn baby: tap water.

Photo-illustration by Christopher Gardner

Bleach Bond

'TAP WATER" as defined in the study consisted of cold tap water only, not heated or boiled water from the same source. Cantor says that letting a glass of water stand will not help reduce the level of chlorine contaminants such as THMs. In fact, it often makes them worse, allowing more time for active chlorine to interact with organic compounds. Slight heating, such as in a water heater, also makes THMs worse, he cautions, although boiling water for a minute or more before drinking will reduce them.

In Santa Clara County about two-thirds of the water supply is chlorinated, and throughout the nation chlorine has been water suppliers' disinfectant of choice for the past 90 years. Cheap and effective, chlorine kills waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera.

But in the 1970s scientists discovered that maybe chlorine wasn't the panacea they originally thought it was.

At that time, researchers identified four trihalomethanes in drinking water. Three of them--chloroform, bromoform and bromodichloromethane--are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as probable carcinogens, linked to bladder and kidney cancers.

The dangerous byproducts of chlorination occur when chlorine comes into contact with plant material, common in above-ground water sources such as the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the Delta.

In 1979, the federal government clamped down on the industry's liberal chlorine use. To combat cancer risks, the government limited the average annual amount of THMs in drinking water to 100 parts per billion.

The amount of chlorination and THMs present in water vary throughout the district, because different areas of the valley get water from various sources, including ground water, which requires much less chlorine treatment than surface water.

The San Jose Water Company, which serves 900,000 customers, uses a mix of ground water and treated surface water bought from the water district. Sunnyvale residents get a mix of surface water treated by the water district, imported water from Hetch Hetchy and ground water. Palo Alto, Mountain View and Stanford University get their water mostly from Hetch Hetchy.

Valley residents can obtain information about the source of their tap water and the level of THMs from the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

No Cheap Fix

IN RECENT YEARS, water suppliers such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District have responded to public health concerns and stiffer EPA regulations by trying to reduce their reliance upon chlorine.

For the past 15 years the county water district, which sells treated surface water wholesale to South Bay water companies, has used a chemical known as chloramine instead of straight chlorine. The benefit of chloramine--a combination of chlorine and ammonia--is that it produces fewer carcinogenic byproducts than chlorine.

Before the district's switch to chloramine in 1982, THMs present in treated surface water in the county sometimes exceeded federal safety standards, according to a 1984 white paper released by state and federal health agencies. In 1981, water from the district's Rinconada treatment plant in Los Gatos reached an average THM level of 106 parts per billion for the year.

Since switching over to chloramine, the water district has consistently been able to keep within legal levels, district officials say.

Even without the results of the latest miscarriage studies in hand, water suppliers already have been eyeing a disinfection process called ozonation, widely used in Europe, which produces few THMs. Though many environmentalists consider ozonation safer than chlorination, water agencies have been cautious about switching.

For one thing, ozonation produces its own carcinogenic byproducts when mixed in salty water. Secondly, it costs a lot of money to convert to ozonation.

Anticipating more stringent federal standards for trihalomethanes, however, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has budgeted $150 million to retrofit its three water treatment plants to switch over to ozonation in the next five to eight years.

Water Under the Bridge

SHOULD FURTHER STUDIES determine that current federal standards are too weak to protect pregnant women during early pregnancy, it could send a ripple through the nation's water industry, forcing it to rethink the way it disinfects its product. Swan said that the EPA would attempt to replicate the study outside of California before changing the national standard.

She adds that the state is currently receiving money from the EPA to look at the relationship between tap-water consumption and other reproductive concerns such as early pregnancy loss, menstrual function and semen quality.

For now, water agencies throughout the state are dealing with the fallout of the study results and the tardy delivery of data from the state. In Santa Clara County, the news comes just days following the panic surrounding last week's winter storms. A main concern of the district has been to emphasize the need for pregnant women to drink as much as eight glasses of water a day, and to use boiled or bottled water if their tap water is high in THMs.

"We've been deluged with calls," one weary water official said. "Obviously the public is very interested in this."

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