Chlorine’s Health Effects

In addition to diet and exercise, maintaining optimum health involves controlling toxic pollutants commonly found indoors.  Many people who suffer from allergies find their complaints aggravated by substances that have become part of everyday life.  Whether we like it or not, most of us spend 70 to 90% of our time indoors, bombarding our immune systems with chemicals and irritants from carpeting, cleaning products, tobacco smoke, pesticides, dust, plastics, fiberglass, asbestos, automobile exhaust, and even the chlorine that is routinely added to municipal water supplies.

Young children, the elderly, and the chronically ill are among the most noticeably affected.  The American Medical Association reports a 75% increase in asthma cases since 1984. “Sick buildings” are routinely reported in newspapers and magazines, largely the result of poorly circulated air, toxins emitted by plastics and other. synthetic materials, and out-gassing of paints and chemically treated wood. A “sick building” is defined as one where more than 20% of a building’s occupants report illnesses that are building related, with symptoms such as skin rashes, nose bleeds, headaches, mental fatigue, eye, nose and throat irritation, nausea and dizziness.

Indoor pollution can frequently be the cause of feeling run down and generally out of sorts.  Yet this shouldn’t surprise us if our bodies, particularly our respiratory systems, are being overtaxed by contaminants, then no matter how much we control our diet and how much time we spend getting exercise, we won’t be able to perform at our peak. While chlorine occurs in nature, chiefly as a component of sodium chloride in sea water and salt deposits, it irritates the eyes and throat, and it is poisonous when swallowed or inhaled. In 1992, the American Medical Association published information that stated “nearly 28% of all cancer of the intestines and 18% of all cancer of the bladder were caused by the drinking of chlorinated water.” Chlorine may also be a culprit in cancer, although studies undertaken to determine if this is the case remain incomplete.

A surprising but growing concern is the effect that chlorine and other chemicals have on serotonin levels. Recent research demonstrates that recalcitrant organochlorines may play a role in the etiology of chronic fatigue syndrome. The chlorine emitted from showering and other household water use breaks down into free radicals that can lead to cancer and cardiovascular disease. Chlorinated water also contains hypochlorite, which increases levels of singlet oxygen in the body. Clearly it is vital to good health to filter as much chlorine from your home water system as possible.

Indoor air is often more contaminated than outdoor air. During the summer months especially, pollens, smog, and bacteria increase.  Along with the harsh chemicals used to control germs and bacteria, our homes may also be polluted by organic gases from paint, wallpaper, insect repellent, air fresheners, and dry cleaned clothing. The levels of organic gases can be as much as five times higher inside the home than outdoors. Ordinary household dust may contain lead, asbestos, other respirable particles, and dust mites, an especially annoying problem for allergy sufferers, who may experience eye, nose, and throat irritation occluded breathing, bronchitis, and respiratory infections from inhaling dust mite feces. Biological pollutants in the home may be found in damp walls (especially in humid climates), in basements, air conditioners, carpeting, bedding and furniture.

Chlorine is one of the most reactive elements found in nature.  It readily dissolves in water, where it combines with molecules of oxygen and hydrogen to form hypochlorous acid and hypochlorite ion.  Chlorination of water is achieved by adding chlorine gas directly to the water supply, or by adding the chemicals calcium hypochlorite or sodium chlorite, both of which are known as “free available chlorine”.

Water utilities routinely disinfect drinking water to prevent microbial diseases, especially cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever.  Top date, the greatest contribution to the protection of public health in the United States has been the disinfection of public water supplies, yet chlorine itself has been shown to cause a number of health problems.
Two decades after the start of chlorinating our drinking water, the present epidemic of heart trouble and cancer began.

Potential Contribution to Heart Disease
The patent for chlorination was granted in 1888 to Dr. Albert R. Leeds, Professor of Chemistry at Steven’s Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. The next year, the first chlorination of a public water supply was attempted in Adrian, Michigan. It wasn’t until 1908, however, that chlorination was used on a large scale, at Boonton Reservoir waterworks in Jersey City, New Jersey. By the 1940s, chlorination was widespread in the United States.

Concerns about chlorine and health began in the 1960s. In one study, an association was shown to exist between chlorination and heart disease, evidence that was, interestingly, discovered in Jersey City, the site of the first large-scale chlorination project. The severity of heart disease among people over the age of 50 correlated with the amount of chlorinated tap water they consumed. A statistically significant correlation demonstrated that those persons over 50 who did not suffer from heart disease drank mostly unchlorinated fluids such as bottled water, or boiled water (chlorine is released as a gas when boiled).

Dr. Joseph Price, author of Coronaries, Cholesterol, Chlorine, has stated that he believes chlorine is the cause of “an unprecedented disease epidemic which includes heart attacks and strokes … Most medical researchers were led to believe it was safe, but now we are learning the hard way that 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 in 1940, the present epidemic of heart trouble and cancer began.”

Although numerous studies have been conducted in the attempt to discover how chlorine may be a factor in cancer, no research has determined specifically that chlorine is a responsible agent. (See, for example, T. Pate, R. H. Harris, S. S. Epstein, “Drinking Water and Cancer Mortality in Louisiana,” Science Vol. 193, 1976, 55-57). But the relationship between heart disease and chlorinated water is well established-alas, even chickens and pigeons used in tests to determine the effects of chlorine showed evidence of either atherosclerosis of the aorta or obstruction of the circulatory system.

Removal of Chlorine from Showers
In confined spaces, such as a shower or bathroom, we can sometimes smell chlorine. Frequent exposure to chlorine gas even at the low levels found during normal activities such as showering may reduce the oxygen transfer capacity of the lungs.

When we shower, we also expose our skin to a large amount of diluted chlorine. It’s likely, given the strong oxidizing power of chlorine, that regular exposure to chlorinated water will hasten the skin’s aging process. Fortunately, over the last ten years, water filters have become more sophisticated and it is now possible to remove chlorine from your home shower.

References:
Paul Caro, Water, McGraw Hill, 1993, passim.

R. Hugh Dunstan et al, “A Preliminary Investigation of Chlorinated Hydrocarbons and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” The Medical Journal of Australia, September 18, 1995; 163: 294-297.

Patrick Flanagan, Elixir of the Ageless: You Are What You Drink, Flanagan Technologies, 1986.

Colin Ingram, The Drinking Water Book: A Complete Guide to Safe Drinking Water, Berkeley, CA:Ten Speed Press, 1991.

Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach, New York: Warner Books, 1983; 260-261.

Sanetaka Shirahata et al, “Electrolyzed-Reduced Water Scavenges Active Oxygen Species and Protects DNA from Oxidative Damage,” Biochemical and  Biophysical Research Communications, 234, 269-274, 1997 (Article NO. RC976622).

J.C. Steward, Drinking Water Hazards, Envirographics, 1990.

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