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Debate still percolating over chlorination in Chilliwack

Chlorination is coming for Chilliwack
Chlorination is coming for Chilliwack's drinking water system after notification by health officials during Tuesday's city council meeting.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS FILE

Debate is still percolating about the chlorination of Chilliwack's drinking water.

The decision was made last week to add a secondary disinfectant to the water system for the growing community, on the heels of three incidents of E.coli detected in hillside water reservoirs since 1998.

"It's really about public safety and trying to do what's right for everybody," said Dr. Marcus Lem, medical health officer for Fraser Health. He is the official with statutory power under the B.C. Drinking Water Protection Act to order city officials to turn on the chlorination system permanently in Chilliwack.

He and Mayor Sharon Gaetz have been in the news for having a difference of opinion about the prospect of chlorination.

"I am a doctor. I don't make the laws. I enforce them," he said.

Fraser Health has tried to work with the city to resolve the problem of E.coli contamination in the water from fecal matter of warm-blooded animals, but the organisms were present more than once in the past several years.

"It comes down to a question of how long can you continue to be drinking poo in your water," he said.

The question of health concerns came up. What about health side effects from chlorinated water?

"There are almost none, especially for Chilliwack," Lem said. Because Chilliwack has an underground source of drinking water, and not a surface source, there are no organic or plant-based materials present to react with the disinfectant to create by-products, like a chemical taste and smell.

"I have no health concerns for Chilliwack, although I know the mayor does," he said.

There are "no appreciable"  risks in this case, when it comes to drinking water treated with a secondary disinfectant like chlorine, Lem told the Progress.

The amounts of disinfectant will be so small as to not likely affect the award-winning taste and smell, the doctor said.

"The chlorine that's left in the water by the time it reaches tap is literally a drop in a bucket," Lem said.

Communities with a surface water supply have more to worry about.

But the majority of Chilliwackians making their views known are not convinced.

More than 1,300 people signed the petition against chlorination at Chilliwackwater.com, a website started by the husband and wife team of Kim and Jake Reimer.

"The reaction has been incredible," said Kim Reimer. "We didn't think it would take off the way it did."

The reason for the petition is how angry people are about having this imposed.

"It was just thrown in our laps. This way there is a platform for citizens."

Hundreds of posts have been logged on the petition, as well as emails and messages sent to Fraser Health, about potentially negative health effects of chlorinated water.

Some research studies indicate chlorination by-products can increase the risk of cancer.

Rob Pafford and his family live on Little Mountain, where they've been dealing with chlorinated water since last year, when the emergency back-up system was turned on.

They're frustrated with trucking their bottled water in, and being forced to inhale the chlorine smell when showering. It's noticeable in their hair and on their skin, he said.

They're also concerned about the health implications.

"I think we need to collectively push back on this," said Pafford.

He intends to contact his MLA and wants other options considered.

"There's a lot of data on the serious health implications of ingesting chlorine. I think the other side of the story needs to be looked at."

There's no evidence it's necessary.

"I think we need to satisfy the question of if do we in fact need to treat our water at all."

With so many toxins in our environment, he reasoned, anything that can be done to limit them is a good thing.

"We certainly don't want to add anymore."

jfeinberg@theprogress.com

Twitter.com/chwkjourno

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