Chlorine: Safe Chemical or Toxic Threat?

ADVOCATES say chlorine is as much a part of society as the power that lights our homes. Opponents say it is a toxic threat we had better learn to live without.

Experts have yet to weigh in with definitive opinions, so the debate rages over the chemical that makes clothes whiter, water cleaner, and, perhaps, lives more risky.

The International Joint Commission recommended in 1992 that chlorine gradually be phased out of industrial use in the Great Lakes region. The group, a six-member American-Canadian panel studying environmental issues in the region, is expected to reiterate that position in a report due out early next year.

``It's used in so many aspects of everyday life. It would be like, what if we got rid of electricity? ... It's the same sort of thing,'' says Debbie Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Chemical Manufacturers Association's Chlorine Chemistry Council.

Bonnie Rice, of Greenpeace's Chlorine Free Campaign, disagrees.

``They always talk about how phasing out chlorine is going to end life as we know it,'' she says. ``But using chlorine is going to end life as we know it. We're seeing tremendous effects on wildlife that are caused by the use of chlorine.''

Chlorine is a poisonous chemical used in bleaching, water purification, and other industrial applications.

A study by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management found high usage of chlorinated compounds by steel mills in Lake County, one of 43 ``hot spots'' of toxic pollution in the Great Lakes region.

Chlorine is criticized most sharply because it forms harmful byproducts known as ``organochlorines.''

Greenpeace says some organochlorines are suspected ``hormonal copycats,'' disrupting bodily systems that control hormone production.

Those findings have many doubters who argue that research has been inconclusive.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency and its Canadian counterpart, Environment Canada, usually adopt the commission's recommendations. Neither has acted yet on the recommended chlorine ban.

``The big picture here, and the big question for society, is how much information do you need before you do something?'' said Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago.

A study commissioned by the chemical industry found that eliminating chlorine from industrial use in the Great Lakes basin could cost the United States and Canada more than 415,000 jobs and $11.1 billion in wages.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.