Water works: Chlorination questions resurface in Brainerd

A recent thunderstorm knocked out power to Brainerd's water system, opening the door to contamination, a battery of Minnesota Department of Health tests and an ongoing boil water order.

The possible contamination also brought up a long-standing debate in Brainerd. Chlorine.

Previous coverage: Brainerd residents must boil water before using

Brainerd is one of just a few cities left in Minnesota still pumping un-chlorinated water. An estimated 82 percent of municipal water systems in the state use chlorine to disinfect their supply, according to Stew Thornley, a health educator with the Minnesota Department of Health's Drinking Water Protection division.

Most of the remaining 18 percent of water systems are quite small, serving less than 5,000 people, Thornley said.

"We've had customers calling us saying please, please don't chlorinate."

Brainerd then, a city of nearly 14,000, is an outlier.

In an interview with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition, Brainerd Public Utilities Superintendent Scott Magnuson said the people he serves don't want chemicals in their water.

"We've had customers calling us saying please, please don't chlorinate," he said

Brainerd residents historically have been skeptical about the benefits of adding chemicals to water. In the 1980s Brainerd was the last Minnesota city to add fluoride, a chemical vital to dental health, to drinking water. The addition of fluoride marked the end of a 30-year debate.

The chlorine debate has also been going for 30 years. Magnuson said the Minnesota Department of Health has been pushing Brainerd to chlorinate for decades.

For Thornley, chlorinated drinking water is a scientific advancement on par with antibiotics.

"Going back 100 years when municipal water systems around the country started chlorinating," he said. "It virtually eliminated Cholera, Typhoid and Dysentery. It was a huge step forward for public health."

Water facilities might be very effective at cleaning water, but once that water is pumped into the miles of pipe it's vulnerable, Thornley said.

A storm swept through the Brainerd area early Thursday morning, causing a loss of pressure in the system. A battery of tests conducted after the storm found bacteria in one location, suggesting contaminated water could have been sucked back into clean pipes.

That bacteria, Magnuson said, would likely have been killed in a chlorinated system.

Brainerd might be rare in Minnesota, but Thornley said some other communities shy away from chlorine. The chemical must be stored correctly and added in just the right quantities. If done wrong, it can react with organic materials like algae and create trihalomethanes or haloacetic acids which are both carcinogens.

"Some communities in Europe don't use chlorine for that reason," he said, "but I think the benefits outweigh the dangers."

After the contamination, the Brainerd water system will be treated with chlorine for at least a month. Instead of making any immediate decisions, Magnuson said the Brainerd Utilities board will decide whether to permanently chlorinate after that.

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