Chlorine: It cleans, but is it safe?
Who doesn't own a bottle of chlorine bleach? Chlorine, the gaseous toxic element whose atomic symbol is Cl, is universally used with water to disinfect and clean. According to Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #704, July 21, 2000, the chemical industry is producing 40 million tons of chlorine products each year. This involves 11,000 different chlorinated chemical products, which eventually enter into the environment.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
According to the book Pandora's Poison: chlorine, health, and a new environmental strategy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000; ISBN 0262201240), by Joe Thornton, a molecular biologist and former Greenpeace research coordinator,
"Every species on earth -- including humans -- is now exposed to organochlorines that can reduce sperm counts, disrupt female reproductive cycles, cause endometriosis, induce spontaneous abortion, alter sexual behavior, cause birth defects, impair the development and function of the brain, reduce cognitive ability, interfere with the controlled development and growth of body tissues, cause cancer, and compromise immunity. If we stopped all further pollution today, these compounds would remain in the environment, the food web, our tissues and those of future generations for centuries" (page 6).Thornton finds that the decision to add chlorine to industrial organic chemicals was an organochlorine disaster, a colossal environmental blunder. He argues that most chlorinated chemicals should be phased out over the next several decades.
The policy shift that Thornton advocates is an "ecological paradigm" which recognizes that science "can never completely predict or diagnose the impacts of individual chemicals on natural systems" (page 10). Instead of allowing acceptable exposure limits, Thornton argues that we should, as Rachel's puts it, "avoid practices that have the potential to cause severe damage, even in cases in which we do not have scientific proof of harm."
Zero discharge implies that we must completely eliminate release of substances that persist or bioaccumulate. Their persistence tells us that nature does not have a means for handling them. The alternative is "clean production," the redesign of products and processes so they don't use or create toxic chemicals.
Thornton claims that this end-of-pipe approach fails for four reasons. First, when the product itself such as pesticides contains poisons, pollution control devices are useless. Second, pollution control devices such as filters and scrubbers merely shift contaminants from one place to another; eventually, captured pollutants make their way into the environment. Third, control technologies can deteriorate and break down and thus don't always work as well as they were designed to work and release contaminants increasingly as time passes. Fourth, pollution control devices are only designed to capture a certain proportion of the pollutants being created.
As Rachel's states, "chemicals that do not break down rapidly in nature will build up in living things, contaminating food webs. Natural systems have no 'assimilative capacity' for such chemicals and there can be no 'acceptable' discharges of such chemicals."
In contrast, a review of the book by Joseph Bast of the Heartland Institute's "Environment and Climate News," May 2000, states that chlorine is found naturally in over 2000 organic compounds including saliva and blood, and is not inherently dangerous.
Thornton is alarmed by dioxin, produced by burning in the presence of chlorine, but Bast points out that the levels of dioxin in our bodies and the environment have been falling and is now at pre-industrial levels. There are also natural sources of dioxin, such as forest fires, so it cannot be totally eliminated.
Alternatives to chlorine also pose health risks and high costs. Joseph Bast's review shows that we need to look at all sides of an issue and that policy needs to weigh all the costs and benefits before embarking on costly measures that may not do any good.
-- Fred Foldvary
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Copyright 2000 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.