Science vs. the Chlorine Scare

Every time you turn on your tap, whiten your socks, fill a prescription, or diaper your baby's bottom, you are taking advantage of the element known as chlorine.

Chlorine is found in such diverse products as teflon, compact discs, birth control pills, photographic film, sofa cushions, linoleum, and lawn chemicals. It is used in 85 percent of all pharmaceuticals and in 96 percent of all pesticides. It purifies 98 percent of all U.S. drinking water, and directly affects 1.3 million American jobs.

With numbers like these, it's difficult to imagine that anyone would attempt to completely strike out its use. Nevertheless, some people are claiming that we must do just that because, they say, the consequences of not banning chlorine are too severe. Certain environmental groups are actually calling for "zero discharge" of the chemical. Even the Clinton administration has announced plans for the creation of a "national strategy for substituting, reducing, or prohibiting the use of chlorine."

At the heart of the chlorine controversy are complaints about the chemical's effects on the environment and human health. It is alleged that human activities such as incineration, paper production, water purification, and pesticide use are resulting in dangerous amounts of toxic chlorine compounds being formed in the environment. It is further claimed that these compounds, known as organochlorines, can persist in the ecosystem for as much as 100 years and can thus build up, or bioaccumulate, in living tissue and pass from one organism to another. Since animals further up the food chain are more susceptible to harm from such persistent chemicals, some environmentalists sound their loudest alarm about chlorine's impact on birds, fish, and people.

Basic science and some real-world observations are casting a long shadow on the brash certainty of these claims, however. To begin with, there are literally thousands of different kinds of organochlorines and despite assertions to the contrary, many (like chloroform and methylene chloride) are produced by nature. Even "persistent" chlorine by-products like dioxin and PCBs are naturally produced by forest fires and volcanos.

As for breaking down in the environment and in living tissue, scientists from the respected CanTox group in Ontario say even the most persistent chlorinated organic compounds are far more degradable than generally thought. In the Great Lakes, for instance, levels of PCB and dioxin have dropped dramatically since their use was curtailed-a drop of fifteen fold in just 20 years. And fish, which had PCB levels of as much as 40 parts per million (ppm) in the 1970s, are commonly found today with a meager level of 1 ppm and rarely exceed 2 ppm.

Organochlorines have never been known to cause any human fatalities. In fact, those who oppose their use have been able to produce only one report of any scientific interest that links them to physical human harm. Known as the "Jacobson" study, it postulates a connection between birth defects and the consumption of contaminated Great Lakes fish by pregnant mothers. It has been roundly rejected because it included no chemical analysis or legitimate demographics of the individuals surveyed and came up with only a statistically insignificant 2 out of 36 positive tests that showed any link.

Evidence of harm to wildlife from chlorine is scant as well.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in fact, reports a remarkable growth in the populations of many environmentally sensitive species. Bald eagles, for instance, have been on the rebound for more than two decades, and the Great Lakes region just happens to be among their strongest habitats. In 1973, there were an estimated 345 pairs in the region, but today that number has burgeoned to 1,449. Trout numbers in the area also continue to remain healthy. Nests of the double-crested cormorant numbered just 157 in the region in 1977; there are now an estimated 11,439. As for seagulls, any Great Lakes boater or fisherman can tell you there's little danger of the area running out of them any time soon.

Unfortunately, the lack of any convincing evidence to show any damaging effects has not slowed down the drive to ban chlorine. Bolivia and Peru are experiencing cholera epidemics following their decision to stop chlorinating their drinking water while proposals to do the same thing here fetch an increasingly wide hearing.

Banning chlorine is another example of environmental extremism that Americans cannot afford to entertain. Wild claims unbacked by scientific evidence should not become the foundation of our public policy.