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logoClean Water: What does it mean to you?

Ashley Gonnella        

Chlorine has been a part of our society for as long as most people can remember, and has been purifying our water for the last century.  Chlorine has many uses; it is used as an amazing water disinfectant to rid water of harmful organisms, it sanitizes many surfaces, and it is used in the production of many products.  Virtually all water borne diseases have been wiped out as a result of water purification, mainly due to chlorine.  Life expectancy has increased fifty percent in the last century because people are able to drink clean, healthy water.  Two hundred million people in America and Canada drink, shower and swim in chlorinated water everyday, and ninety-eight percent of water treatment facilities use chlorination (Christman, 1998).  Chlorine has benefited society in an uncountable number of documented cases, yet there are those who feel chlorine is very harmful to our long-term health, and believe it should be eliminated from our society.  We are being affected everyday.  When you shower, swim, wash your food, use bleached paper, you are absorbing chlorine.  We need to be informed about the possible dangers and know what the safe levels of chlorine are in our water and environment.  As college students, consumers, and future leaders of this country, we need to be aware of new studies regarding our drinking water and the chemicals used to keep it clean.  We may one day decide future on chemical use, if it is chlorine or not.  Chlorine has become an integrated part of our society.  If it is found to be harmful, removing it and it’s byproducts from our society would not be an easy task.  I have found three differing viewpoints to the issue of chlorination and its possible effects.  The first approach is health concerns, where chlorine and all of its byproducts are believed to be very harmful to human health.  The second is the scientific approach, which states that chlorine at low levels has not been proven to cause any health problems, and its benefits far outreach its assumed heath risks.  Finally, those who take the economic approach believe that chlorine might have some effect, yet the expenditure of money and time to develop alternatives for all of chlorine’s uses make it hard to eliminate it from our society.

 Studies have shown that it is not the chlorine that causes damage to our health, but rather chlorine’s byproducts.  Dioxins, which are an unwanted byproduct of industrial production that uses chlorine, are the most harmful human carcinogens studied (Thornton, 1997).  When chlorine is added to our water supply, it immediately kills many to all of the organisms living in the water.  However, it also reacts with any organic material in the water such as leaves, twigs, or dirt chemically producing byproducts called trihalomethanes, or THMs. THMs consist of four chemicals: chloroform, bromoform, bromodichloromethane and dibromochloromethane.  Dibromochloromethane is already classified as a possible known human carcinogen and has been proven to cause cancer in laboratory animals (Times Union, 1996).

The US Council of Environmental Quality states that, "[t]he cancer risk among people drinking chlorinated water is 93% higher than among those whose water does not contain chlorine" (Showering in Tap Water, 2001).  Organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, as well as many doctors and scientists, are publicly claiming that certain levels of chlorine can lead to cancer, decreased immune system, birth defects and other health problems to those who are exposed.  J.M. Price, M.D. of Saginaw Hospital believes that, "[c]hlorine is the greatest crippler and killer of modern times.  While it prevented epidemics of one disease, (water-borne bacterial diseases), it is creating another" (Showering in Tap Water, 2001).  Greenpeace and its supporters have been active against chlorine and its use for over a decade.  They want to completely eliminate chlorine from our society.  This would include eliminating all products made with or from chlorine, such as PVC piping, which is used in all new construction.  Greeenpeace believes that the more we use chlorine, the more dioxins and THMs build up in our environment, and eventually reside in our bodies.

When industrial plants produce materials requiring chlorine, such as paper plants that use chlorine to whiten the pulp, they dump their waste into the environment.  This waste, which already contains dioxins, enters the soils and waters and creates THMs. Small organisms, fish and animals ingest these chemicals and then bigger animals eat them.  Being at the top of the food chain, humans are the most affected.  Not only do we have dioxins and THMs in our body from our own exposure, but the foods we eat that are contaminated with these chemicals are deposited in our body and build up in our fat (Thornton, 1997).

We are also exposed to dioxins and THMs though absorption.  For example, toilet paper companies use chlorine to whiten the paper, and when one uses the product one absorbs the chemicals through the skin.  This is a frightening thought considering colon cancer is the fourth most frequently diagnosed cancer and ranks second among cancer deaths in the United States (Miller, 1996).  Even if we stop using chlorine in water purification and in the production of products, we would still be unable to rid it of our systems for many years.  Dioxins and THMs are very stable chemicals and do not break down in the environment.  These chemicals do not dissolve in water, allowing them to be transported throughout the world via oceans.  Dioxins and THMs do break down in fat; as a result they are stored in tissue, blood, and breast milk (Thornton, 1997).  These chemicals will remain in the environment, and thus even after we stopped using chlorine we will still be consuming dioxins and THMs for an immeasurable amount of time.

The Chlorine Chemical Council (CCC) has supported the use of chlorine, and base their use on scientific studies.  The CCC represents manufacturers and users of chlorine.  They believe that chlorine chemistry should be based on “sound science” and concentrate on risk assessment.  The CCC is working with its member companies to minimize chlorine’s impact on the environment.  They urge the public to rely on scientific fact before passing any judgments on the chemical that they contend has kept our population healthy for the last one hundred years.  They also note that organizations who strive for a ban on chlorine lump the class of chlorine together.  The CCC feels that studies should consider different compounds separately when it is known that chemicals with same elements often have different properties and toxicity levels.  The CCC sponsors research that enhances our understanding of chlorine, and studies its true effect so decisions can be made based on scientific facts, rather than flashy headlines (Howlett, 1995).

Chlorine affects our everyday lives in many ways.  Not only does chlorine purify our water, it has also helps us develop products and medical supplies.  Medicine bags, x-ray films, heart monitors, seat belts, household bleach, rocket fuel, computers, bullet-resistant vests, and many other products of chlorine chemistry have made life healthier, safer, and more enjoyable.  Today, eighty-five percent of pharmaceuticals contain chlorine or are made using chlorine chemistry.  Commonly prescribed life-saving antibiotics, cancer treatment drugs, AIDS medications, heart and high blood pressure medications, arthritis medications, cold and allergy medicines, and pain relievers like Tylenol are all made with the assistance of chlorine.  The antibiotic Cipro, which is recommended by the CDC for treatment of anthrax, is also made with chlorine.  Chlorine is so important to our society that virtually every product made benefits in some way from it (Howlett, 1995).  Chlorine has been credited for increasing life expectancy by fifty percent in this century.  This fact encouraged Life magazine to cite the purification of drinking water and use of chlorine as "probably the most significant public health advancement of the millennium" (Christman, 1998). 

Economic analysts estimate eliminating chlorine completely would cost the nation and American family more than they can afford.  One study shows that lowering the amount of THMs produced by water purification systems would cost $200,000 to save one life.  That $200,000 could be used in public services such as law enforcement, education or heath clinics, which would result in many more lives being saved (Capele, 2002).  Also, according to a 1993 study by Charles River Associates, the net cost of substitutes to chlorination would be astounding for the average U.S. consumer.  It would cost more than 90 billion dollars a year or $1,440 a year for a family of four to change our current purification systems (Howlett, 1995).  The economic costs of a chlorine ban in the U.S. would be enormous.  We must also consider what we could use to make our water as bacteria free as chlorine does.  A horrific water borne outbreak would most certainly occur if we discontinued purification.  According to the World Health Organization, disinfection by chlorine is still your best guarantee of safe water (Christman, 1998).  There are several new methods that can be used to purify our water, such as ozone, which is being used in a few places around the country.  But how do we know that ozone or other methods being tested do not have any alarming long-term side effects that will not be discovered until it is too late?  Are we willing to spend the money and take the risk when we are not sure of the safety and effectiveness of new methods?

Chlorine is a major part of most industrial processes and a major part of our economy.  Approximately sixty percent of commercial chemistry use chlorine.  If chlorine were to be banned, substitutes would have to be developed for the products or processes now using chlorine.  New factories, plants and equipment would have to be developed and built to make the new products.  The process would require major capital funding, jobs would be lost and unemployment would increase.  This would cause a domino effect throughout our economic system, affecting almost everybody in a negative way.  As consumers and tax payers, we need to evaluate these trade offs and make an informed decision on how to handle the differing view points (Howlett, 1995).  

What is to be done?  Should we as a health conscious culture ignore the doctors and scientists who tell us the high levels of THM that build up in our bodies could have adverse health effects?  Should we as an informed society be grateful for all the medical advances in which chlorine has played a role?  Should we as consumers risk economic breakdown to change our water purification system and revise almost all chemically produced products?  As college students, we must seriously consider the risks, alternatives and procedures concerning this issue. Chlorine is affecting us everyday, and, someday, we will be forced to address these questions first hand.  We also need to consider change quickly if our goal is to protect future generations from dioxin and THM contamination.  One hundred years ago, the leading killer in America was water born disease, and now after consuming chlorination for over a century, the number one killers are cancer, heart disease, and stroke.  All of these diseases are now being linked to high levels of THM stored in the body (Showering in Tap Water, 2001).  Is this merely coincidence?  Or, is it time for us to find a new way to purify our water?




   Capele, John.  (2002, January)  Comparing Risks in our Daily Lives.  Southern DataStream.  Retrieved October 15, 2002 from the World Wide Web:



     Christman, Keith.  (1998, September)  The History of Chlorine.  Water World.  Retrieved October 15, 2002 from the World Wide Web:



     High Stakes Balancing Act, The. (1996, October). Times Union. Retrieved November 2, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.clo2.com/reading/archive/high.html


     Howlett, C.T. (1995, August). Chlorine: The Issue, The Reality and the Solution.  Chlorine Chemistry Council. Retrieved October 17, 2002 from the World Wide Web:



     Miller BA, Kolonel LN, Bernstein L, Young, Jr. JL, Swanson Gm, West D, Key CR, Liff JM, Glover CS, Alexander GA. (1999)  Racial/Ethical Patterns of Cancer in the United States. National Cancer Institute.  Retrieved October 17, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.nci.nih.gov/cancer_information/doc.aspx?viewid


     Showering in Tap Water: Facts and Solutions.  (2001) Your Nutrition. Retrieved October 10, 2002 from the World Wide Web:



  Thornton, Joe.  (1997). Dioxin: From Cradle to Grave.  Greenpeace USA.

Retrieved  October 12, 2002  from the World Wide Web: