The Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority held a symposium Thursday in an effort to address public concerns raised about the safety of chloramines that are proposed for use in the Charlottesville-Albemarle urban water system beginning in 2014.

An audience of over 100 came to the Albemarle County Office Building to listen to and ask questions of a panel of water treatment experts recruited by the RWSA and local water activists.

Chloramines are in wide use in Virginia, approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and recommended by the World Health Organization for water treatment systems.

Mike Gaffney, the RWSA’s chair, began the evening by telling the audience that 70 percent of Virginians are drinking chloraminated water.

“Seventeen primary waterworks in Virginia today provide chloraminated water that directly serves 2.9 million people,” Gaffney said. “In addition…there are wholesale supplies to 64 additional water systems … Overall 5.7 million people in Virginia now use and drink chloraminated water.”

Lorrie Delehanty, a city resident and medical researcher who opposes chloramines, had lobbied to get two national experts who share her concerns on the panel.

“I’m glad they got our participants on there,” Delehanty said in an interview. “I am very happy that Bob Bowcock and Susan Pickford are on the panel. We had to push for that.”

Robert W. Bowcock is an environmental investigator with California-based Integrated Resource Management. Susan Pickford is co-founder of the Chloramine Information Center, a Pennsylvania-based clearinghouse. Pickford lost a battle to prevent chloramines from being used in her community.

“We have heard from thousands of people in 20 different states of acute health reactions to chloramine systems,” said Pickford. “They include persistent skin rashes and/or burns, ulcers, digestive problems … and respiratory ailments akin to asthma.”

“Don’t let the threat of EPA regulations cause you to put chloramines in your water system,” Pickford warned.

In February, the RWSA approved a $5 million capital project to put chloramines in public water as a secondary disinfectant. Chlorine is and will remain the primary disinfectant.

Chloramines are created by combining chlorine and ammonia and are intended to prevent pathogens from growing within the water distribution system. The RWSA says a new treatment approach is necessary to meet standards set by the EPA.

Jerry Higgins is the manager of the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area water authority. He said his community has been using chloramines with “absolutely zero” negative health effects for seven years.

“One of the things we did was a tremendous information program,” Higgins said. “We found very few people were going to be effected by it — pet shops, people with fish, and dialysis patients were our main concerns. It has been smooth sailing ever since.”

“There have been absolutely zero negative public health impacts,” Higgins added. “We were very sensitive to complaints from the public … We were very sensitive to gasket [failures]. From what we could find out, the materials of concern hadn’t been on the market in a decade and in fact we never experienced a problem, it was all positive.”

In March 2011, staff at the RWSA, the city of Charlottesville and the Albemarle County Service Authority worked with consultant firm Hazen and Sawyer and agreed to recommend the chloramines project in RWSA’s next capital budget. Chloramines were determined to be more cost effective than alternatives like granular activated carbon filtration, which was estimated to cost $18.3 million.

The RWSA board authorized the chloramines project in May 2011, but it wasn’t until February, when the capital budget was approved, that the board’s discussion caught the public’s attention.

During the budget deliberations the board was focused on concerns about paying for an unfunded federal mandate. The public however, immediately raised questions about public safety and the project was put on hold.

Bowcock questioned whether the RWSA really was looking at the complete costs of chloramines.

“Is it really the least-cost option? How much does it cost for a doctor’s visit?” Bowcock asked. “We are talking about metal corrosion and copper pipe pitting. There is lead in brass — you don’t have to have lead pipes.”

Panelist Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering professor, has studied the correlation between Washington’s use of chloramines and its problems with lead leaching.

“It looks like there is relatively low risk of seeing very high lead levels that we’ve seen in other systems after the switch has occurred,” Edwards said. “Secondly, you are in fact exchanging one set of problems with known disinfection byproducts with an unknown set of problems with unknown disinfection byproducts.”

“It comes down to a pretty straightforward choice, do you want to meet the EPA regulations at the lowest cost…or do you want to try an option that potentially has other benefits that is going to be two to three and maybe four times more expensive?” Edwards asked. “Things will turn out fine either way, I am sure.”

Dozens of residents lined up to ask detailed questions of the panelists. Many held signs reading “NO Chloramines.” Questions were raised about the absence of scientific studies and the merits of other water treatment options. Questions were also taken from online viewers watching a live broadcast of the discussion.

Next, a public hearing on water treatment options will be held July 25 by the four boards responsible for the local water supply — the RWSA, the ACSA, Charlottesville’s City Council and Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors. The RWSA says a final decision must be made this summer to ensure EPA deadlines are met in 2014.