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Wastewater leaving wastewater treatment plants is often treated with chlorine before being released into the environment. Therefore, besides contaminating water resources with feces, the act of defecating into water often ultimately contributes to the contamination of water resources with chlorine.

Used since the early 1900s, chlorine is one of the most widely produced industrial chemicals. About 10 million metric tons are manufactured in the US each year - $72 billion worth.16 Annually, approximately 5%, or 1.2 billion pounds of the chlorine manufactured is used for wastewater treatment and drinking water "purification." The lethal liquid or green gas is mixed with the wastewater from sewage treatment plants in order to kill disease-causing microorganisms before the water is discharged into streams, lakes, rivers, and seas. It is also added to household drinking water via household and municipal water treatment systems. Chlorine kills microorganisms by damaging their cell membranes, which leads to a leakage of their proteins, RNA, and DNA.17

Chlorine (Cl2) doesn't exist in nature. It's a potent poison which reacts with water to produce a strongly oxidizing solution that can damage the moist tissue lining of the human respiratory tract. Ten to twenty parts per million (ppm) of chlorine gas in air rapidly irritates the respiratory tract; even brief exposure at levels of 1,000 ppm (one part in a thousand) can be fatal.18 Chlorine also kills fish, and reports of fish kills caused chlorine to come under the scrutiny of scientists in the 1970s.

The fact that harmful compounds are formed as by-products of chlorine use also raises concern. In 1976, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that chlorine use not only poisoned fish, but could also cause the formation of cancer-causing compounds such as chloroform. Some known effects of chlorine-based pollutants on animal life include memory problems, stunted growth and cancer in humans; reproductive problems in minks and otters; reproductive problems, hatching problems, and death in lake trout; and embryo abnormalities and death in snapping turtles.19

In a national study of 6,400 municipal wastewater treatment plants, the EPA estimated that two thirds of them used too much chlorine, exerting lethal effects at all levels of the aquatic food chain. Chlorine damages the gills of fish, inhibiting their ability to absorb oxygen. It also can cause behavioral changes in fish, thereby affecting migration and reproduction. Chlorine in streams can create chemical "dams" which prevent the free movement of some migratory fish. Fortunately, since 1984, there has been a 98% reduction in the use of chlorine by sewage treatment plants, although chlorine use continues to be a widespread problem because a lot of wastewater plants are still discharging it into small receiving waters.20

Another controversy associated with chlorine use involves "dioxin," which is a common term for a large number of chlorinated chemicals that are classified as possible human carcinogens by the EPA. It's known that dioxins cause cancer in laboratory animals, but their effects on humans are still being debated. Dioxins, by-products of the chemical manufacturing industry, are concentrated up through the food chain where they're deposited in human fat tissues. A key ingredient in the formation of dioxin is chlorine, and indications are that an increase in the use of chlorine results in a corresponding increase in the dioxin content of the environment, even in areas where the only dioxin source is the atmosphere.21

In the upper atmosphere, chlorine molecules from air pollution gobble up ozone; in the lower atmosphere, they bond with carbon to form organochlorines. Some of the 11,000 commercially used organochlorines include hazardous compounds such as DDT, PCBs, chloroform, and carbon tetrachloride. Organochlorines rarely occur in nature, and living things have little defense against them. They've been linked not only to cancer, but also to neurological damage, immune suppression, and reproductive and developmental effects. When chlorine products are washed down the drain to a septic tank, they're producing organochlorines. Although compost microorganisms can degrade and make harmless many toxic chemicals, highly chlorinated compounds are disturbingly resistant to such biodegradation.22

"Any use of chlorine results in compounds that cause a wide range of ailments," says Joe Thorton, a Greenpeace researcher, who adds, "Chlorine is simply not compatible with life. Once you create it, you can't control it." 23

There's no doubt that our nation's sewage treatment systems are polluting our drinking water sources with pathogens. As a result, chlorine is also being used to disinfect the water we drink as well as to disinfect discharges from wastewater treatment facilities. It is estimated that 79% of the US population is exposed to chlorine.24 According to a 1992 study, chlorine is added to 75% of the nation's drinking water and is linked to cancer. The results of the study suggested that at least 4,200 cases of bladder cancer and 6,500 cases of rectal cancer each year in the US are associated with consumption of chlorinated drinking water.25 This association is strongest in people who have been drinking chlorinated water for more than fifteen years.26

In December, 1992, the US Public Health Service reported that pregnant women who routinely drink or bathe in chlorinated tap water are at a greater risk of bearing premature or small babies, or babies with congenital defects.27

According to a spokesperson for the chlorine industry, 87% of water systems in the US use free chlorines; 11% use chloramines. Chloramines are a combination of chlorine and ammonia. The chloramine treatment is becoming more widespread due to the health concerns over chlorine.28 However, EPA scientists admit that we're pretty ignorant about the potential by-products of the chloramine process, which involves ozonation of the water prior to the addition of chloramine.29

Of course, we don't have to worry. The government will take care of us, and if the government doesn't, then industry will. Won't they? Well, not exactly. According to a US General Accounting Office report in 1992, consumers are poorly informed about potentially serious violations of drinking water standards. In a review of twenty water systems in six states, out of 157 drinking water quality violations, the public received a timely notice in only 17 of the cases.30

Stop that annoying, water-wasting running toilet!

Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing, PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.

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weblife.org | library | Humanure Handbook | Chapter 5: Chlorine