Rachel’s Folly: The End of Chlorine

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The environmentalists are right about one thing: Dirty water kills. Millions are people are dying needlessly all over the world because of it. But are the main culprits man-made pollution and chlorinated chemicals? Try endemic poverty, bad plumbing and lack of access to basic water chlorination techniques. Every year, nearly 1.5 billion people — mostly children under five — suffer from preventable water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, amoebic dysentery, bacterial gastroenteritis, giardiasis, schistosomiasis, and various viral diseases such as hepatitis A. Yet now there is a mounting campaign, led by environmental activists in wealthy industrialized nations, to eliminate every last man-made chlorine molecule from the face of the earth.

Greenpeace, the international environmental advocacy group, launched the first salvo in 1991 with its call to phase out completely “the use, export, and import of all organochlorines, elemental chlorine, and chlorinated oxidizing agents (e.g. chlorine dioxide and sodium hypochlorite).”1  As Greenpeace’s Joe Thornton explains, “There are no uses of chlorine which we regard as safe.”2  Yet chlorination — considered one of the greatest advances ever in public health and hygiene — is almost universally accepted as the method of choice for purifying water supplies.3  In the United States alone, 98 percent of public water systems are purified by chlorine or chlorine-based products. Alternative chemical disinfectants such as ozone and other short-lived free radicals have been used in water treatment, but none has demonstrated the safety and efficacy of chlorination.4 

Chlorine is a ubiquitous element, one of the basic building blocks of all matter in the universe. In fact, scientists are only now beginning to discover and identify the great number of natural organohalogens present in our world. By one estimate, Mother Nature manufactures at least 1,500 chlorine-containing chemicals.5  Volcanic activity, forest and grass fires, fungi, algae, ferns and the decomposition of seaweed all release chlorinated organics into the environment.6  Our own bodies produce hypochlorite to fight infection and hydrochloric acid for proper digestion.7  And there is, of course, sodium chloride — common table salt — present naturally in mines, lakes and seawater, found in our blood, sweat and tears, and essential to the diets of humans and animals.

Clearly, a goal of total chlorine removal from the environment would be unattainable. And the potential human toll resulting from its eradication is manifest and staggering. Every major scientific investigation of chlorinated water has concluded that the real and proven health risks from microbial contamination of drinking water far exceed the uncertain and hypothetical risks of cancer from chlorination and its byproducts. Why, then, are governmental bodies around the world embracing Greenpeace’s caprice — absolute zero tolerance for man-made chlorine — when the hazards to humanity are so explicitly large?

Perhaps the answer can be traced back to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. The book is a lyrical tract, the bible of the environmental movement. Carson was the first to bear witness against chlorinated hydrocarbons and other “elixirs of death” created by “the ingenious laboratory manipulation of molecules.” She condemned these arrogant manipulations, prophesied a man-made cancer epidemic, and popularized the zero-based approach to regulating synthetic chemicals. A daunting theme runs throughout Silent Spring — that man’s ingenuity would be his own worst enemy. And therein lies the essence of Rachel’s folly. Carson and her intellectual heirs in the environmental movement embrace a mistaken vision of technology. It is an impaired vision that considers only the risks of industrial chemical compounds, and not the risks created by their absence.

As the late Aaron Wildavsky observed, there are few unalloyed good things in the world. Rarely does one find a substance that has benefits but not costs.8  “Sunsetting” all uses of chlorine may reduce the hypothetical risks associated with such compounds as dioxin, DDT and PCBs. At the same time, however, a blanket ban on chlorine would increase the enormous risks of waterborne microbial infection here and in underdeveloped countries that can now barely afford chlorine disinfectants (let alone costly substitutes such as ozone or ultraviolet light treatment).

Even more daunting, a chlorine phase-out would halt the production of most plastics, pesticides and chlorine-containing drugs like chloroquine, a key anti-malarial drug; halogenated tetracycline-based antibiotics like chlortetracycline; and the family of halogenated antipsychotics such as chlorpromazine.9  According to one industry-backed report, almost 85 percent of the pharmaceuticals manufactured worldwide require chlorine at some stage of production; 96 percent of crop-protection chemicals are chlorine-dependent.10  From safe drinking water, clean swimming pools and pest-free crops, to flame retardants and food packaging, quality white paper and bright socks, Saran wrap, plastic bottles, garden hoses, window frames and sturdy plumbing pipes, the end of chlorine would spell the end of modern civilization itself.