Debunking the Chlorine Myth

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Most Canadians take chlorine in their water supply for granted and may not even realize that it is a health hazard. Yet chlorine is poisoning our bodies, our water supply, and the soil in which we grow our food.

Chlorine is still being used to "disinfect" most of the water supply in British Columbia, despite the availability of cleaner alternative methods and warnings from Health Canada against the dangers of chlorine byproducts.

Dr Eric Paterson of Creston BC is a general practitioner and ex-chair of the Committee of Environmental Health for the British Columbia Medical Association (BCMA). He is concerned that chlorine has never been adequately tested. "Though useful against fecal organisms, it is totally ineffective on bacteria like giardia and cryptosporidium, despite what chlorine advocates argue," says Paterson.

The Chairperson of the Chlorine Council of America, C.T. Howett, is also vice president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, part of the powerful lobby that was instrumental in bringing in "free" trade. He has an obvious vested interest in the chemical.

Howett insists chlorination is responsible for the largest single increase in life expectancy because it helps eliminate epidemics like cholera and typhoid and that chlorine is very cost effective.

But according to Dr Paterson, cholera and typhoid are not serious concerns in North America any more and haven't been for at least 30 years. He also says that the health risk costs decrease the overall cost effectiveness.

Environment and Chlorine

Barry Thomas works for Health Canada in Ottawa and is co-chair of a federal investigation into chlorine. He can see little justification for chlorination today. The study is expected to take three to five years. Any community that wants its water supply inspected for chlorine content levels is welcome to contact him.

Thomas says that chlorine byproducts called trihalomethanes (THMs) are the real problem. THMs are created when chlorine mixes with organic matter in the environment. "Recent findings show that 13 per cent of bladder cancer is related to THMs. Sixty-six per cent of still births in Nova Scotia, where chlorination levels are too high, have also been found to be related to THMs. Canada's THM level allowance should probably be dropped. It is currently 100 parts per billion (ppb), but a better range would be 50 ppb."

Dr Paterson says there are other serious side effects that are both difficult to quantify and diagnose. "People think they are protected from giardia if they have chlorinated water, when they are not, so they do not boil their water and they get sick," he says.

Paterson also suggests people need to drink more water to be hydrated, but they often refuse to do so if their water tastes like a swimming pool. He says that chlorine sensitivities in all age groups can result in skin conditions and digestive problems. "Lactobacillus and acidophilus, needed for good digestion, are very sensitive to chlorine," adds Paterson.

Chlorinated water is also used to grow our food but it kills micro-organisms in soils. According to research agrologist Dr Colin McKenzie, this leads to sodium accumulations in the soil which cause reductions in yields of sensitive crops like cherries, plums and raspberries.

Rachel Beck, former director of the Maple Ridge Natural Health Care Clinic is now in private practice and is particular about the herbs she uses.

"We know what chlorine does to soil, so what is it doing to our plants? I have to know how herbs are grown, yet it is difficult to get this information. Even organic herbs are being grown with chlorinated water."

Beck is also concerned about the effects of chlorine exposure over time. "Studies show that competitive swimmers, who practically live in chlorinated pools, have an astronomically high asthma rate."

Chlorine in our drinking water may have especially damaging effects on women. "We are seeing an increase in interstitial cystitis. Anything that irritates the bladder like chlorine does will agitate this condition."

In Britain, where chlorination levels are very high, four out of five women experience cystitis at some point.

Nor is chlorine safe for aquaculture. Chlorine from the tap kills fish, so people should not use chlorinated water for their aquariums or gold fish bowls.

"It gets into their gills and they can't breathe," says Doug Neddon, Supervisor of Water Treatment and Research for the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

In BC, rural areas are still getting orders to chlorinate their water from the Ministry of Health. The BCMA believes that the logging of watersheds in BC is linked to chlorination orders in small communities. Logging and road building cause increased turbidity in water. When turbidity is increased, so are the amounts of chlorine used for disinfection and the increase of byproducts. The BC Medical Association is passing a resolution that calls for an investigation into the links between land use and disinfection practices.

What Are The Alternatives?

According to Dr Ray Copes, Medical Specialist on the Environment for the BC Ministry of Health in Victoria, trends away from chlorination are on the upswing. In Europe and Japan; ozonation and filtration are used as alternatives to chlorine for primary treatment. "Unlike: chlorine, ozonation kills giardia and cryptosporidium," he says.

These options need to be coupled with secondary treatment like filtration or lower levels of chlorine. "In 20 years, we'll all be using these other methods," says Copes. Over 2,000 chlorination systems are still in place across the province.

Vancouver is changing its three treatment centres from primary disinfection with chlorination, to ozonation and filtration, according to Bob Jones, head of Water Control, Vancouver, though they will still use chlorine for secondary treatment. Ottawa already has ozonation and even smaller communities like Rossland in BC have ozonation. Some disinfection systems can be implemented at the point of use, like people's homes, and filter only water that needs to be potable. Once installed, reverse osmosis of the water can remove chlorine, but is another household expense that could be avoided.

"Instead of chlorine, small communities could look to filter membranes and UV light," Barry Thomas says, but admits that chlorine alternatives are expensive.

No Chlorine in Erickson

In rural BC, the small but feisty town of Erickson does not want chlorine in its water supply. The citizens launched a legal case against the man who gave the order for chlorination, saying he did not investigate other options seriously enough.

"Our water is pristine as it is," says Russell Lahti, chairperson of the Erickson Water Users Society. "A few bugs in the water are preferable to the risks of chlorine."

They have also blockaded their water supply to stop water purveyors from chlorinating it. "We will not have chlorine in our water. Ever," says Lonnie Lecerf, head organizer of the blockade.

Canadian Health Reform Products Ltd.

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By Pam Irving

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