Most of us
have grown up with the idea that whiter whites (and brighter colors)
mean cleaner clothes. We continue to use chlorine products with abandon
to whiten and to disinfect. We write on white paper and bathe in and
drink chlorinated water.
After all, who wants bacteria- infested water? In our society,
chlorine is ubiquitous-and so are its side effects.
In fact, the long-term residual effects
from chlorine are becoming such a health hazard that the American
Public Health Association is urging the American paper industry
to stop using chlorine.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found dioxin
(a toxic byproduct of chlorine) to be 300,000
times more potent as a carcinogen than DDT
Healthy & Natural speaks with Stephen
Ashkin, director of product development and environmental affairs
at Seventh Generation,
a manufacturer of green, nontoxic cleaning products.
Although he has a degree in chemistry, Ashkin gained most of his
practical knowledge and experience through direct contact in the
chemical industry. He literally grew up in the laboratory of his
parent's cleaning products manufacturing company.
Ashkin chaired the American Society for Testing and Materials'
task force that wrote the national cleaning standard for commercial
and institutional buildings. He has also chaired President Clinton's
Green Chemistry Challenge Task Force. Ashkin is acting advisor for
a number of EPA programs including the Indoor Environment Division.
He has published numerous articles on environmentally preferable
products and is a very popular conference speaker.
Q: Does chlorine occur naturally?
Typically chlorine does not normally occur in the environment except
as a yellow gas on rare occasions. It's a manufactured
substance produced through an industrial process. An
electrical current is passed through salt water producing chlorine
and caustic soda.
Q: Is chlorine very toxic?
This is where this topic gets very interesting. Many people argue
that chlorine is basically safe-that it breaks down into harmless
salt and water. Well, that's true-in a laboratory test tube under
very controlled conditions.
The real issue is not just how toxic chlorine itself is but how
the unintended byproducts of chlorine (organochlorines and dioxins)
remain in the environment. They are persistent in the environment;
they do not break down readily and therefore bio-accumulate.
Q: Is there a chlorine pollution problem?
One of the largest uses of chlorine is in the paper
industry. Chlorine is first used to break down the lignan
that holds the wood fibers together. Then chlorine is used to bleach
the paper to make it white.
The effluent or wastewater containing dioxins and other organochlorines
are then dumped into streams and waterways. These ingredients are
highly toxic and carcinogenic. Once in the waste stream, they come
into contact with other organic materials and surfactants and combine
to form a host of extremely toxic organic chemicals.
A chain of events occurs: The
water becomes polluted; the fish become contaminated; animals eat
the fish and people eat the contaminated animals and fish.
This can create a very serious health
problem; the dioxins and other toxic chemicals, when
consumed, accumulate in the fatty tissues.
These contaminants are also hormone disrupters because they mimic
estrogen. The EPA has observed and documented hormonal imbalance,
suppressed immune systems, reproductive infertility and alterations
in fetal development of animals. In viewing the big picture, these
factors are perhaps the most frightening results from the widespread
use of chlorine.
Q: How widespread is chlorine contamination?
It is so widespread that it would be difficult to find any human
being who does not have detectable levels of dioxin in his/her blood.
While we know that chlorine is a substantial environmental problem
caused by the paper industry, household bleach and cleaners containing
chlorine also pose a serious health risk.
For instance, in 1997, 217,989 calls to the Poison Control Center
concerned household cleaners. Of those calls, 54,453 were about
chlorine bleach and 7,570 were for chlorine disinfectants. So, that
means that 28.4 percent of all calls were related to poisonings
by chlorine products. What's even more important, most of those
calls were about children under 6 years old.
Q: What can happen if these chemicals
get into our bodies?
Our bodies are very good at metabolizing many things. Through special
enzymes, our bodies are able to rid themselves of many environmental
toxic substances that we come into contact with daily. However,
dioxins (and other organochlorine compounds) aren't included. Even
if we are exposed to very low levels, dioxins remain in the body
The EPA is now saying that this is soon to become a major health
risk problem. The cumulative effects of dioxin
in humans have been linked to
- birth defects
- reproductive disorders
- immune system breakdown
Q: Should chlorine be used in our public
The alternative question would be, should we drink contaminated
water? The answer, of course, would be no. It's very important that
our water is sanitized. Years ago, there were very few alternatives.
However, today, while chlorine is a very effective (and cheap) sanitizer,
many scientists are recognizing some serious side effects from chlorine.
Today, our technology is getting to the point where, I hope, we
will look into a better means of sanitizing our drinking water.
This will not be easy because one of the biggest advantages (and
ultimately the biggest disadvantage) of using chlorine is the fact
that chlorine doesn't break down.
Water can be treated with chlorine at the filtration plant and
10 miles away the chlorine is persistent enough to remain in the
water and pipes when it reaches the home. There exist many other
ingredients that are good sanitizers, but they break down quickly,
and the water would become contaminated by the time it reaches someone's
We may have a problem if we need to sanitize via a chemical additive.
It becomes a sort of oxymoron: chemicals that are persistent also
tend to be toxic. The ultimate solution may be to have home-based
water filtration/sanitizing systems. This would eliminate the problem
of trying to prevent hundreds of miles of pipes, installed a hundred
years ago, from contaminating the water.
Q: Are there safe, effective alternatives
to chlorine as a bleaching agent and disinfectant?
Absolutely! Primarily, hydrogen peroxide
is available to the paper industry and to the soap industry as a
bleaching agent. Another new technology uses ozone. Other non-chlorinated
household cleaning products, readily available to the consumer,
achieve the same bleaching and disinfecting results as chlorine
but are nontoxic.
I don't understand why anyone would want to use chlorine products
anyway. Chlorine is a respiratory irritant and when mixed with other
common household products, it gives off a toxic gas.
Q: What can we do to make a difference?
We could request and purchase processed chlorine-free paper, not
just in writing paper but in paper towels, napkins, tissues, and
toilet paper. It's a vote for our environment and our health. It
may seem to be a small thing, but collectively it really can make
a substantial difference.
We need to realize that the technology in the chemical industry
has changed as dramatically as in the computer industry. We no longer
need to use harmful substances simply because they worked for our
grandparents. The technology in the chemical industry is allowing
us to replace many of these toxic ingredients with others that are
not only nontoxic but have renewable resources and many environmental
It's a major educational process for consumers to understand that
they, through their buying choices, can make a difference. Did you
know that only about 20 percent of shoppers buy their household
products in natural food stores?
What that says to me is that while consumers recognize the importance
of buying supplements and organic foods, they don't recognize the
same environmental and health benefits associated with buying chlorine-free
paper and other nontoxic cleaners.
Dioxin, a chemical byproduct
of the manufacturing of chlorinebleached paper, is believed to be
the single most carcinogenic chemical known
When you open the door of your dishwasher after washing, toxic
volatized chlorine from dish detergent and tap water is released
into the air.
Thanks to chlorine pollution, Americans ingest a daily amount of
dioxin that is already 300 to 600 times greater than the EPA's so-called
The US Environmental Protection Agency has found dioxin to be 300,000
times more potent as a carcinogen than DDT.
Dioxin has been linked to endometriosis, immune system impairment,
diabetes, neurotoxicity, birth defects, decreased fertility, and
reproductive dysfunction in both women and men.
Studies show that 40-70 percent of the dioxin in bleached coffee
filters can leach into your coffee; dioxin found in paper milk cartons
also leaches into the milk you drink.
Cancer-causing chemicals like chlorine found in many household
products such as coffee filters, disposable diapers, paper towels,
and bathroom tissue are readily absorbed through the skin.