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Should we Be Concerned about Chlorine?

An elephant in the room

chlorine1Over thousands of years we have polluted our environment and degraded our water supplies to such an extent that in most countries today, natural water is unsafe to drink.  Chlorine has been hailed as a saviour against cholera and various other water-borne diseases; and rightfully so. Its disinfectant qualities have allowed communities to grow and prosper by providing disease-free tap water to homes and industry.

While chlorine has given us safer drinking water, long-term consumption of chlorine has contributed to a long list of related health problems including: cancer, heart disease and hardening of the arteries, premature ageing and senility. It's not going to harm us immediately but the continuous long-term use has consequences that does. Note that bottled water often contains chlorine as most of it is from tap water.

Our swimming pools are more chlorinated than tap water to counteract the probability that many people use swimming pools as toilets. A careful study published in an issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine demonstrated chlorine used in swimming pools stings your eyes, irritates skin and it can also disrupt the sensitive lung tissues causing the destruction of the cellular barriers that protect the deep lung (respiratory epithelium), making them “leaky” and more vulnerable to the passage of allergens. The effects were the same for children wherever they lived and they were strongest in the youngest children.

A nasty version of chlorine

Many municipalities use chloramine in public water treatments instead of chlorine. Chloramine exists as three different forms or species: monochloramine (NH2Cl), dichloramine (NHCl2) and trichloramine (NCl3). They are chemically related and are easily converted into each other; thus, they are more appropriately called chloramines. Chloramine is known to be more volatile and harmful to our health, but as in Flint, authorities are often more interested in profits and political expediency than public health, so chloramine use is becoming more widespread.

Chlorine removal

The good news is, you don't have to drink it any more. The most practical and efficient method for removing chlorine, chlorine by-products, taste and odour problems, is to filter your water with granular activated carbon (GAC) or another suitable chemical-removing filter media, such as KDF associated with fish tanks and aquaculture as chlorine kills fish.

Chlorine will evaporate if water is left in a bowl exposed to the air for a day (24 hours) and some chlorine is evaporated by boiling water, but this method does not work with chloramine.

Both chlorine and chloramine can be removed from water by dissolving Campden tablets (Potassium metabisulfite, K2S2O5, also known as potassium pyrosulfite) or vitamin C into it. One campden tablet is enough to dechlorinate 20 gallons of tap water but there's not specified quantity of vitamin C.

Here's What The Experts Have To Say:

"The drinking of chlorinated water has finally been officially linked to an increased incidence of colon cancer. An epidemiologist at Oak Ridge Associated Universities completed a study of colon cancer victims and non-cancer patients and concluded that the drinking of chlorinated water for 15 years or more was conducive to a high rate of colon cancer." ~ Health Freedom News, January/February 1987

"Long-term drinking of chlorinated water appears to increase a person's risk of developing bladder cancer as much as 80%," according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Some 45,000 Americans are diagnosed every year with bladder cancer." ~ St. Paul Dispatch & Pioneer Press, December 17, 1987

"Although concentrations of these carcinogens are low...it is precisely these low levels which cancer scientists believe are responsible for the majority of human cancers in the United States." ~ The Environmental Defence Fund

"Chlorine itself is not believed to be the problem. Scientists suspect that the actual cause of the bladder cancers is a group of chemicals that form as result of reactions between the chlorine and natural substances and pollutants in the water." (organic matter such as leaves and twigs.) ~ St. Paul Dispatch & Pioneer Press, December 17, 1987

"Chlorine has been documented to aggravate asthma, especially in those children who make use of chlorinated swimming pools. Several studies also link chlorine and chlorinated byproducts to a greater incidence of bladder, breast and bowel cancer as well as malignant melanoma. One study even links use of chlorinated tap water to congenital cardiac abnormalities." ~ Melissa V. Chlorine and cancer. Good medicine.

The wider background

At present the conclusion of the World Health Organization and other concerned bodies is that the risk from contaminated water supplies outweighs the risk to health from chlorine.

The chemical element chlorine is a corrosive, poisonous, greenish-yellow gas that has a suffocating odour and is 2 1/2 times heavier than air. As such it is used as a weapon of war and chlorine belongs to the group of elements called halogens. The halogens combine with metals to form compounds called halides. Chlorine is manufactured commercially by running an electric current through salt water. This process produces free chlorine, hydrogen, and sodium hydroxide. Chlorine is changed to its liquid form by compressing the gas, the resulting liquid is then shipped.

The U.S. General Accounting Office reports that there are serious deficiencies in water treatment plants in 75% of the states. More than 120 million people (about 50% of the population) may get unsafe water according to a study conducted by the Natural Resources Defence Council. U.S. Health Officials estimate 900,000 people each year become ill - and possibly 900 die - from waterborne disease. The General Accounting Office estimates 66% of Safe Drinking Water Act violations aren't reported.

chlorine2

Granulated chlorine for treatment of home pools

The contamination of water is directly related to the degree of contamination of our environment. Rainwater flushes airborne pollution from the skies, and then washes over the land before running into the, rivers, aquifers, and lakes that supply our drinking water. Any and all chemicals generated by human activity can and will find their way into water supplies and liquid or solidified chlorine is mixed into drinking water and swimming pools to destroy bacteria.

Some people have grown-up on tap water, and believe the taste of chlorine signifies purity and safety, but this may not necessarily be true. Chlorine is a bleach and what comes out of most municipally delivered faucets is a mild bleach solution. Is it healthy to drink bleach? Does your body require any certain amount of chlorine to remain healthy? You may like to ask your physician on that somewhat rhetorical question.

Until recently, concerns about drinking water focused on eliminating pathogens. The chlorine used to reduce the risk of infectious disease may account for a substantial portion of the cancer risk associated with drinking water. Chlorination of drinking water was a major factor in the reduction in the mortality rates associated with waterborne pathogen. The use of chlorine was believed to be safe. This view is evident in an article, which appeared on the back page of the New York Times. The report stated that with the use of chlorine, "Any municipal water supply can be made as pure as mountain spring water. Chlorination destroys all animal and microbial life, leaving no trace of itself afterwards". This statement reflected opinion accepted until recent years when halogenated organic compounds, such as chloroform, were identified in chlorinated drinking water supplies. Recent surveys show that these compounds are common in water supplies throughout the United States.

These concerns about cancer risks associated with chemical contamination from chlorination by-products have resulted in numerous epidemiological studies. These studies generally support the notion that by-products of chlorination are associated with increased cancer risks.

Chlorine is used to combat microbial contamination, but it can react with organic matter in the water and form dangerous, carcinogenic Trihalomethanes. According to Dr. Joseph M. Price, MD, in Moseby's Medical Dictionary, "Chlorine is the greatest crippler and killer of modern times. It is an insidious poison".

In a 1992 study that made front-page headlines, and was reported on in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee found that people who regularly drink tap water containing high levels of chlorine by-products have a greater risk of developing bladder and rectal cancers than people who drink unchlorinated water. The study estimates that about 9 percent of all bladder cancer and 18 percent of all rectal cancer cases are associated with long-term consumption of these by-products. This amounts to over 20,000 new cases each year.

Morris, with epidemiologist Thomas C. Chalmers and his colleagues at Harvard, used a new technique called meta-analysis to combine the results from the 10 best studies, yielding the new findings. They report that people drinking chlorinated water over long periods have a 21% increase in the risk of contracting bladder cancer and a 38% increase in the risk of rectal cancer. "I am quite convinced, based on this study, that there is an association between cancer and chlorinated water.", says Robert D. Morris of the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, who directed the new study.

About 90% of the population is drinking water which may contain hundreds of these Disinfection By-products (DBPs), also known as Trihalomethanes. The Environmental Protection Agency lowered the Maximum Contaminant Level for Disinfection By-products but it will be years before the new standard goes into effect.

In his book, Coronaries/Cholesterol/Chlorine, Joseph M. Price, MD presents startling evidence that Trihalomethanes, are the "prime causative agents of arteriosclerosis and its inevitable result, the heart attack or stroke." These Trihalomethanes are created when the chlorine that is added to the municipal water supply reacts with organic matter such as leaves, twigs, or chemicals from agricultural runoff.

Summary and Prevention Strategies

In its proposal for revamping the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (USA) has recommended examining chlorine's impact on health and the environment (SN: 1/22/94, p.59). The agency's proposed $2 million, one-year chlorine study would look at the effects of the use of chlorine and chlorine compounds in the manufacture of paper, solvents, and plastics and in disinfecting waste water and drinking water, says EPA' James F. Pendergast.

Contaminants may enter water supplies at many points before reaching the tap. The carcinogens in drinking water at the point of use may result from contamination of source water, arise from the treatment processes, or enter as the water is transported to the consumer. Varied carcinogens may contaminate the source water, but they usually exist in drinking water at low concentrations. However, chemicals that enter drinking water during water treatment are limited in number, but appear in drinking water supplies with greater frequency than most source water contaminants.

Under conditions of average temperature, humidity, and activity, the human body loses and, therefore, must replace about 2.3 liters of water each day. Two-thirds of this consumption is in the form of water or some other beverage. Concerns about the health risks or taste of drinking water may cause those who consume tap water to shift to bottled water, or other beverages. These beverages may include sweetened soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, which can pose health risks greater than those associated with drinking water.

To stop chlorination of drinking water to eliminate the elevated cancer risks from chlorination by-products would be foolhardy. Nonetheless, the data provide strong evidence to support expanded efforts in research and development of alternatives to chlorination for the disinfection of drinking water. Chlorination is particularly effective in preventing recontamination during distribution. Alternatives must provide a similar level of protection. Perhaps the most viable alternative is point of use water treatment units.

The weight of the evidence suggests that chlorination by-products pose substantial cancer risks that should be reduced. Dr. Herbert Schwartz of Cumberland County College in Vineman, N.J. says: "Chlorine has so many dangers it should be banned. Putting chlorine in the water supply is like starting a time bomb. Cancer, heart trouble, premature senility, both mental and physical, are conditions attributable to chlorine treated water supplies. It is making us grow old before our time by producing symptoms of ageing such as hardening of the arteries."

Consider some well-known attributes of chlorine. Let's say, "the dark side" of the saviour. A PhD chemist friend put it this way: "If I were assigned to go into a lab and produce a menu of known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), the first thing I would do would be to grab-up a cylinder of chlorine and start bubbling it through some water that contains naturally occurring organic acids (humic and fumic acids -- as are found in all natural bodies of water like rivers, lakes, reservoirs, etc.)."

Note the "chloro" part in the following: trichlorophosphate (TCP) and the trihalomethane group (THMs) which includes chloroform. You may recognize these known bad guys by the legally imposed requirement of your municipality to periodically make report to the public (newspaper) on the levels of these known or highly suspected carcinogens in the tap water being produced. There are others, but those are popularly known. And they're all chlorine by-products.

Another problem directly related to chlorine disinfection are the aesthetic properties imparted when chlorine is combined with organic compounds that are natural to open bodies of water (surface water). This regards the "taste and odor" problems many municipalities experience during certain times of the year (especially in four-season latitudes) which draw their water supply from surface water. Surface water includes ponds, lakes, reservoirs, rivers, etc., as opposed to underground sources (wells, aquifers). Bubble chlorine through humic and fumic acids common to surface water supplies and you produce the "fishy" or "musty" odors and tastes so common in the spring and fall, when the lake "turns-over."

The municipalities are stuck. Environmental and public safety laws require most to maintain a chlorine residual throughout the entire water main delivery system. This is to retain some disinfecting properties in the event of groundwater infiltration and other contaminations. Barking at your local water company or water department about the taste and odor will accomplish nothing. Chances are, they're doing their best, and meeting the laws. The most practical solution to the problem is to take it back out at the "point of use" (POU) -- your own home or office.

Steve Harrison, President
Environmental Systems Distributing
Sunday, 20 February, 2000
The Electronic Telegraph
London, England

An independent study into the use of chlorine-treated drinking water has been ordered by the Government because of fears that it may cause spina bifida and stillbirths.

Scientists from Imperial College, London University, will carry out the research after doctors in Norway, Canada and the United States reported higher levels of birth defects in areas where chlorine is used, compared with drinking water treated by alternative methods. All of Britain's water companies chlorinate their supplies. The only people who have non-chlorinated water are those with their own bore holes or wells.

A Norwegian study of 141,000 births over three years found a 14 per cent increased risk of birth defects in areas with chlorinated water. Scientists have already found an association between chlorine and an increased risk of bowel, kidney and bladder cancer, but it is the first time that a link has been found with higher levels of spina bifida.

Last night the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association said it was "concerned" by the findings and would be discussing them with medical advisers before considering making representations to the Government. British water industry experts have not dismissed the findings but said that the safety benefits of purification outweigh the risks of birth defects.

Dr Per Magnus, who carried out the Norwegian research, said: "This is an important finding because we know there are chemicals released by the action of chlorine on organic particles at treatment works. We have observed mutations in these chemicals which seem to tie up with mutations that are found in babies. We were in a unique position in Norway to make these observations because in some areas our water comes from the mountains and doesn't require cleaning with chlorine."

The Norwegian government has ordered more research. Concerned families there have been filtering tap water. A popular method has been to place sachets of coral sand, dredged from fjords, into water before it is drunk, removing all traces of chlorine in tap water in 15 minutes. In Canada, at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, researchers found that high levels of trihalomethanes, a by-product of chlorine in drinking water, significantly increased the risk of stillbirth.

Dr John Marshall, of the Pure Water Association, a pressure group which has been campaigning for safer drinking water, said: "It shows we should be paying more attention to the chemicals we put in drinking water and be looking for other alternatives to chlorination. A number of safe, non-toxic options exist, such as treating water with the gas ozone or ultra violet."

Chlorine is in the same chemical group as fluoride, which has been linked with cancer and osteoporosis. There is also a connection between fluoride and increased blood pressure and an increase in problems with the thyroid gland. John Fawell, a leading specialist on water quality, and an independent industry consultant, said the British Government and water companies were taking the danger of birth defects seriously. He said: "The people who have done this work in Norway and the United States are reputable researchers and the Government and water companies have commissioned their own research from London University.

Greenpeace reports have found chlorine-based compounds to be the most common toxic and persistent pollutants in the Great Lakes of North America.

Links:
Special needs kids
Removing chlorine - high times
Chloramine facts 
Campden tablets 

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