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Facts About Chlorine

Reprinted with permission from Seventh Generation.

What Is Chlorine?

Residing at number 17 on the Periodic Table of the Elements, chlorine is a toxic, yellow-green gas that's one of today's most heavily used chemical agents. Because it occurs in nature only in the rarest of circumstances, chlorine is manufactured by passing an electrical current through salt water or melted salt. This electricity splits the salt molecules apart and creates chlorine.

As consumers, we're most familiar with chlorine's role as a bleaching agent for paper, and as an ingredient in household cleaners. When immersed in a concentrated bath of chlorine, the natural colors of things like cotton fibers and wood pulp disappear, leaving behind a bright white surface on which any dye or ink can be applied. We see chlorine's ability to bleach out color firsthand in our washing machines, where we use it to remove stains and dirt in our laundry, and brighten whites.

Sounds Okay to Me... Where's the Problem?

Everywhere. The widespread use of chlorine is causing far-flung and extremely serious risks to our health and the health of the environment. Unfortunately, this damage isn't easy to see at first glance.

Only researchers using special tools and methods can observe it. Because the harmful effects of chlorine are hidden from direct view, we haven't had any reason to stop and think about the possibility that using it could be dangerous.

After all, chlorine is so common it's sold in every supermarket in the country. True enough, but the evidence scientists have gathered seems to tell us that it shouldn't be. Far from being America's household helper, and industry's best chemical friend, chlorine is something we should stop using right now.

In fact, on October 27, 1993, the American Public Health Association unanimously passed a resolution urging American industry to stop using chlorine.

The chlorine controversy covers two separate but related issues. There's the issue concerning the use of chlorine to bleach paper. And there's the issue that has to do with using chlorine in household cleaning products. Let's look at paper bleaching first.

What's So Bad About Using Chlorine to Bleach Paper?

Chlorine is used by the paper industry for two purposes. The first has to do with a substance called lignin. Lignin is the natural material a tree uses to hold its cellulose fibers together. Cellulose fibers are the raw material for paper. Because chlorine dissolves lignin, paper mills use it to rinse the lignin out of the wood pulp they need to make paper.

Once the lignin is washed away, and the pulp is ready to be made into paper, chlorine is used again to make the paper white. If this were all there was to it, we wouldn't have much to worry about. Unfortunately, there's more. When wood pulp or recycled paper is bleached, the reactions that take place between the chlorine, the lignin, and the cellulose fibers produce the most toxic substances ever created. The most dangerous of these includes a family of 75 different chemicals known as dioxins and a host of other chemicals called organochlorines.

How Does Paper Bleaching Affect Me?

The wastes that paper mills discharge into the environment after paper is bleached contain dioxins. And dioxins don't readily break down, which means that over the years they've been accumulating in our air, water, and soil. Once they're out there, they enter the food chain and we're exposed to them through the food we eat. Dioxins are now so widespread in the environment that virtually every man, woman, and child in America has them in their bodies. In fact, each day we ingest 300-600 times more than the EPA's so-called "safe" dose1. As they accumulate inside us to critical levels, the effects begin to show.

Dioxins are deadly. In fact, dioxins are believed to be the most carcinogenic chemicals known to science2, and the U.S. EPA's Dioxin Reassessment has found dioxins 300,000 times more potent as a carcinogen than DDT (the use of which was banned in the U.S. in 1972)3. There's no way to sugar-coat the effects dioxins have on people and the environment. Recent research has conclusively linked dioxins to cancer, reproductive disorders among adults, deformities and developmental problems in children, and immune system breakdowns4. And dioxins can cause these effects at exposure levels hundreds of thousands of times lower than most hazardous chemicals.

What About Organochlorines?

Like dioxins, organochlorines are extremely long-lived, highly efficient travelers that have spread throughout the global environment. Every human being on the planet now carries organochlorines in his or her body. Scientists are concerned about these chemicals because they believe that when organochlorine molecules enter the body, they mimic hormones, the natural substances we produce in minute quantities to regulate our bodies' many functions. Because organochlorine molecules are shaped like hormone molecules, they can slip into cells in place of our hormones and cause terrible effects. These may include lower IQ, reduced fertility, genital deformities, breast cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, dramatic reductions in human sperm counts, and abnormalities within the immune system through a process called endocrine disruption.

Should I Worry About Chlorine in Household Cleaners?

In a word: Yes.

Many household cleaners contain chlorine, though it often masquerades behind aliases such as "sodium hypochlorite" or "hypochlorite." Whether found alone or in a mixture of other chemicals, household products that contain chlorine pose a number of serious health risks. Products of special concern include: automatic dishwashing detergents, chlorine bleach, chlorinated disinfectant cleaners, mildew removers, and toilet bowl cleaners.

Breathing in the fumes of cleaners containing a high concentration of chlorine can irritate the lungs. This is particularly dangerous for people suffering from heart conditions or chronic respiratory problems such as asthma or emphysema. And the risks are compounded when the cleaners are used in small, poorly ventilated rooms, such as the bathroom. Chlorine is also a highly corrosive substance, capable of damaging skin, eyes, and other membranes. Chlorine was listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the 1990 Clean Air Act, and exposure to chlorine in the workplace is regulated by federal standards.

Using detergents that contain chlorine in the dishwasher or clothes washer can pollute the air in your home. The water in the machines, which contains chlorine from the detergents, transfers the chlorine to the air through a process called "volatilization." We then breathe the contaminated air. Dishwashers are the worst culprits, releasing chemicals in a steamy mist when the door is opened after washing. In a clothes washer, chlorine mixes with the dirt in clothes to generate airborne, toxic chlorinated organic chemicals.

Generally, chlorine is a dangerous chemical to keep in your house. In 1993, 40,000 household exposures to chlorine were reported to poison control centers, more than any other chemical10. Particularly dangerous are fragranced chlorine bleaches and products made with chlorine bleach plus surfactants. Disguising the odor - actually making the experience of inhaling chlorine bleach pleasant - can lead to over-exposure, as we inhale the fumes unchecked. Another danger lies in mixing household products containing chlorine, either intentionally or unintentionally. These mixtures can create chlorine gas and chloramines, both of which are toxic gases that can injure the deep tissues of the lungs. Although the number of reported incidents is relatively small, the percentage of accidents with moderate to serious outcomes is high.

Once These Chemicals Are Inside My Body, What Can Happen?

Research has now begun to conclusively link dioxin and organochlorine exposure to birth defects, cancer, and reproductive and developmental disorders. Many scientists believe that the recent reports of declining sperm counts among men in industrialized countries can be traced to organochlorines.

Similar problems in wildlife populations have been definitively traced to this type of pollution, and we're not as different from our friends in the animal kingdom as appearances first suggest. Many biologists now believe organochlorines are responsible for the strange mutations, sterility, immune system failures, and local extinctions they've been noticing for years in animals from the Great Lakes to the North Sea.

What Can I Do to Protect My Family from the Hazards of Chlorine?

You can do plenty. One of the most important things you can do is buy paper products that aren't bleached with chlorine. At Seventh Generation, we've been making paper towels, napkins, facial tissue, and bathroom tissue that are bleached without chlorine for years. Using Seventh Generation non-chlorine bleached paper products protects our environment during their manufacture by preventing the release of dioxins that poison our air and water, and eventually end up on your dinner plate in the form of contaminated food.

Our paper products protect you when you use them at home too. That's because chlorine bleached paper can contain dioxin and organochlorine residues that can transfer to any food or person they come in contact with. For example, the EPA says that using bleached coffee filters alone can result in a lifetime exposure to dioxin that "exceeds acceptable levels".

Seventh Generation also sells a full line of cleaning products made without chlorine. These include laundry products, dish detergents and other household cleaners.

How Does Seventh Generation Get Its Paper White Without Using Chlorine?

We use hydrogen peroxide and sodium hydrosulphite, totally safe bleaching agents that work as well as chlorine. The only byproducts that result when paper is bleached with these chemicals are oxygen and water.

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