About Chlorine

Greenpeace Comments on Chlorine

Chlorine is found in nature mainly in the form of salt, a stable compound that is essential to many natural processes.

Using massive amounts of electricity, the chemical industry destroys the salt compound's stability creating an extremely reactive form of chlorine that is not widely found in nature. The use of chlorine results in products and wastes, many of which are toxic to wildlife, humans or the ecosystem. Chlorine is found in nature and is on the periodic chart of elements. But the chlorine produced by the chemical industry is not in its natural form and its use results in products and wastes that are toxic to wildlife, humans or the ecosystem. Salt, or sodium chloride, is the raw material for chlorine production.

Chlorine gas is extremely unstable and reactive: the gas used to kill and maim soldiers in World War 1 was chlorine gas. When it comes into contact with organic (carbon-containing) molecules, the chlorine binds tightly to the carbon atoms, creating new substances called organochlorines. Many organochlorines are toxic, persistent and/or bio-accumulative and are rarely found naturally. Nature generally produces only small quantities of such chemicals that are either tightly channelled into subsequent chemical reactions or manufactured for defensive or biocidal uses. For instance grasshoppers can synthesise a type of organochloride to repel ants. Either way, these natural toxins are not feely available to contaminate the environment.

Over 11,000 organochlorides are now in commerce. Organochlorides are useful to industry because they tend to be very stable and they resist natural breakdown processes. But this also means that they may persist in the environment for decades, moving up the food chain and contaminating wildlife and humans. Water disinfection using chlorine gas for drinking water and sewage discharges had been found to create toxic, persistent chemicals. Many more organochlorines, such as dioxins, are produced by accident and these are often even more toxic or persistent than the original chemical.

Water Disinfection
Drinking water and disinfection of sewage is another small use of chlorine with major health impacts. Chlorine combines with the organic matter in water to produce hundreds of organochlorine by-products. Among the best-understood are the carcinogenic trihalomethanes, including chloroform. Chlorinated effluents from sewage plants have caused severe damage to fish and aquatic ecosystems. And a number of studies have linked chlorinated drinking water to bladder cancer, colorectal cancer, birth defects, low birth weight and changes in fat metabolism that can lead to high blood cholesterol and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

By relying on chlorine as a disinfectant, we have traded one serious public health problem - infectious disease - for a new one: chemically-induced diseases.

Chlorinated compounds are destroying the ozone layer that shields life on earth from ultraviolet radiation. Hundreds of other chlorine-based poisons are slowly building up worldwide in the air, water and food chain - and in our bodies, as well. Scientific evidence implicates these chemicals in severe and widespread health problems in people and wildlife, including infertility, impaired childhood development, immune system damage, and cancer.

Slowly Poisoning the Planet
One reason that organochlorides are useful to industry is that they tend to be very stable. They resist natural breakdown processes. But this also means that some organochlorides persist in the environment for decades or even centuries. The breakdown products of their slow degradation commonly include other oganochlorines that may be more toxic or persistent than the original chemical. Even small discharges of these persistent chemicals build up in the environment over time. Because they are fat-soluble, many persistent organochlorine bio-accumulate in animals and humans usually reaching their highest contamination levels at the top of the food chain. Levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in fish eggs can be 25 million times greater than the original level in the water!

Chlorine Family Unsafe Scientists warn about health woes

By Glennda Chui, San Jose Mercury News

Concern is growing among scientists, wildlife experts and public health officials that a widely used class of chemicals may cause serious problems in people and the environment - including breast cancer, neurological problems in children and deformities and infertility in wildlife.

In the past two years, the case against chlorine compounds has prompted an international commission to set an end to their discharge into the Great Lakes and led the nation's largest group of public health professionals to recommend that many be phased out.

Few man-made chemicals are as pervasive as those in the chlorine family. Chlorine is used in making 96 percent of all pesticides, 85 percent of all drugs and every computer chip that rolls off the line. Chlorine compounds dry-clean our clothes, bleach our laundry, form plastics and vinyls, and disinfect our swimming pools and drinking water.

Some are so persistent that they have penetrated every corner of the globe and found their way into virtually everybody on Earth.

Toxic Chemical

Enviromentalists charge that very few of the chorinated compounds have been adequately tested. Of those that have been, virtually all have proven toxic, said Greenpeace spokesman Jack Weinberg. Indeed, this toxicity is one of chlorine's most desirable properties: it kills pests, dissolves dirt on clothing and kill bacteria in laundry or in hospitals.

But recent studies show that some of the 11,000 or more compounds known as chlorinated orgainics can act in a more insidious way: Rather than poisoning outright or causing cancer or major birth defects, they either mimic or block the body's natural hormones, especially the female hormone estrogen.

Researchers are just beginning to unravel how these estrogenic chemicals work, how many of them exist and how widespread they are in the environment. No one yet knows whether there is such a thing as a safe level of exposure.

Yet some studies indicate that even slight exposure to one of these compounds at a critical stage of development can cause subtle defects that may show up only later in life as neurological damage or inability to reproduce. Tests used to check the safety of chemicals, which are geared toward cancer and obvious birth defects would not catch such damage.

No one is suggesting that all uses of chlorine are dangerous. But because so little is known about the thousands of chemicals that include chlorine, some suggest that the whole group should be considered suspect until proven safe - the reverse of how most chemicals are approved.

Phaseout Called For......
Greenpeace has been calling for phaseout of chlorine compounds in every area of life - a move that critics say could cost consumers $90 billion a year and 370,000 jobs.

The Chlorine Chemistry Council has vigorously opposed a phaseout, insisting that the campaign against chlorine is unfair and founded on bad science.

Now, in the latest blow to chlorine's reputation, the 30,000 members of American Public Health Association has passed a resolution calling on industry to either prove the thousands of chlorine compounds are safe or eliminate them until substitutes are found.

Although it set no timetable, the association asked for "measurable and progressive" reduction of chlorine uses in two areas: in the pulp and paper industry and in the class of chemicals that are known to deplete the ozone layer.

The vote, which came late last month as the association's annual meeting in San Francisco, marked a turnaround for the chlorine industry.

Several studies have linked chlorine compounds in the lakes to deformities and health problems in 14 species, including humans. For instance, children of women who had eaten Great Lakes fish had short-term memory problems and other neurological defects, as well as low birth weight and small heads.

The only way to end the contamination and the damage is to stop using the compound, the commission concluded.