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The Two Faces of Chlorine


If you are like most people, you don't enjoy the taste of chlorine in your drinking water. Nevertheless, you're willing to put up with it because it kills certain bacteria that are harmful to your health.

This article will look at the "Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde" characteristics of chlorinated water. These characteristics are much more ominous than the mere combination of bad taste and health benefits might suggest.

The Dr. Jekyll of Water Treatment . . .

Time magazine hailed the use of chlorination in water treatment as one of the major scientific achievements of the 20th century. Chlorine was first used to treat the public water supplies of Jersey City, New Jersey in 1908. Since then, it has achieved almost universal application in the industrialized nations.

The impact of chlorinating public water supplies has been dramatic. In 1908, the average life expectancy in America was 49 years. At the turn of the 21st Century, the average life expectancy had risen to 77 years and it is still climbing.

In 1941, Mathieson Alkali Works published the document, "Hypo-Chlorination of Water." The document colorfully described the lifesaving benefits of chlorine: "The fearsome specter of water-borne diseases, including typhoid fever, so prevalent before the advent of chlorination, can be successfully laid to rest. The water works operator, by his testing and treating, stands as a vigilant sentinel to prevent armies of billions of disease organisms from invading the homes of his community."

The use of this chemical in the treatment of drinking water is responsible for the elimination of typhoid and cholera, especially in developed countries.

The Mr. Hyde of Water Treatment . . .

The benefits of using chlorine as a sanitizing agent are obvious. However, this water treatment agent has a darker side. All the time we thought we were preventing epidemics of one disease? we were creating another. Two decades after the start of chlorinating our drinking water the present epidemic of heart trouble and cancer began.

When water treatment facilities employ chlorine and other disinfectants to control microbial contaminants, they react with naturally occurring organic and inorganic matter in the water. This reaction produces Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM). These trihalomethanes are chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane, and bromoform.

According to the EPA, trihalomethanes are present in most public water supplies. The scarey thing is that some scientific studies link TTHMs to an increased risk of cancer. The U.S. Council of Environmental Quality reports that Cancer risks among people using chlorinated water are up to 93% higher than among those whose water contains no chlorine.

Other studies suggest that TTHMs may cause problems in the reproductive process. They may also be linked to heart, lung, kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage.

Skin Absorption of Chlorine . . .

Most assessments of the effects of water borne contaminants on the human body assume that ingestion through the drinking of water is the primary route of exposure. However, recent studies at the University of Pittsburgh found less chemical exposure from drinking chlorinated water than from showering or washing clothes in it. The study found that, on average, absorption through the skin accounted for 64% of water borne contaminants entering the body. Recent research shows that we have underestimated the amount of contaminants absorbed through the skin. This research reveals that ingestion may not be the sole or even primary route of exposure.

Besides penetration of contaminants through the skin, the contaminants can adversely affect the skin and hair. Chlorine bonds chemically with proteins in the hair, skin and scalp. As a result: (1) the hair can become rough and brittle and lose its color, (2) the skin can become dry and itchy, and (3) it can aggravate sensitive areas in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

Inhaling Chlorine By-Products When Showering Is a Major Threat . . .

Evidence clearly shows that contaminants like chloroform and trichloroethylene do serious harm when ingested or absorbed into the body. However, the major threat caused by these water pollutants is far more likely to be as air pollutants.

Hot showers can release these dissolved contaminants into the air. The lungs absorb these contaminants, including chlorine, trichloroethylene, chloroform, benzene. They pass from the lungs into the bloodstream.

Conclusion . . .

While chlorinating public water supplies is perhaps the most efficient way to address the problem of water contamination, it does present a "catch 22" situation. We are damned if we do and damned if we don't.

How do we deal with this seemingly impossible situation? It appears that the better part of wisdom would show that chlorine should do its work until it gets to the point of use. At that point we can remove it along with the trihalomethanes and other contaminants with a quality home water filter.

Earl Calvert is a freelance writer and lives in Birmingham, AL. As an advocate for clean drinking water, Earl designed his website on drinking water to educate the public water quality issues. For more information, go to http://good-clean-water.com


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