CHLORINE is a ubiquitous feature of everyday life. It cleans drinking water and swimming pools. It makes paper white. It is a key element in the production of most pharmaceuticals. It helps banish ``ring around the collar.'' And it features in the manufacture of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe.
But, increasingly, chlorine is being linked to toxic substances like dioxin, suspected of causing serious health problems.
Among the potential dangers of chlorine cited in the Clinton administration's Jan. 28 proposal for reauthorization of the Clean Water Act are ``impairments to the reproductive, endocrine, immune, and nervous-system functions.'' The plan calls for ``a national strategy for substituting, reducing, or prohibiting the use of chlorine and chlorinated compounds.''
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico is pushing the ``Chlorine Zero Discharge Act.'' The bill, which has attracted 34 cosponsors in the House, would require a five-year phaseout of the use of chlorine or other chlorinated oxidizing agents in the pulp and paper industry.
The strongest blow to chlorine and the industries that use it came Thursday from the United States-Canadian International Joint Commission (IJC), a treaty group established in 1909. In its biennial report on the Great Lakes, it stated: ``Exposure to persistent toxic substances is the most significant problem facing the Great Lakes region. Forty-two chemicals, or classes of chemicals, have been reported to affect the reproductive or hormone systems,'' the report said. ``Twenty-three of these compounds contain chlorine as an essential ingredient.''
As it did two years ago, the commission called upon US and Canadian governments to end the use of chlorine and other toxic substances in manufacturing.
The chemical industry concedes that some organochlorines (carbon-based compounds) are harmful but says they should be dealt with individually. Citing ``an array of third-party and peer-reviewed studies,'' Dow Chemical last week expressed concern about ``the IJC's conclusion that all chlorines are persistent toxics.'' A Dow statement asserts: ``This simply is not the case. With the possible exception of a few, chlorinated compounds have not been found to cause adverse effects on humans or the environment when properly used.''
The Chlorine Chemistry Council, a chemical-manufacturing trade group, points out clean-water benefits of chlorine - ``one of the most significant public-health advances of the 20th century.'' And it notes that 1.3 million jobs in the US and 100,000 in Canada depend on the chlorine industry.
The industry lobbying group also asserts that ``chlorine and chlorinated compounds save US consumers more than $90 billion annually ... versus alternative products or processes.''
As for the IJC report and its warnings about toxic substances in the Great Lakes region, Brad Lienhart, Chlorine Chemistry Council managing director, says it is ``not a sound-science approach to decisionmaking.''
But IJC officials, appointed by US and Canadian governments, assert: ``The time has arrived ... to move beyond the politics of confrontation and denial.'' They cite more than a dozen government and academic studies linking chlorine-based chemicals to health problems. And they warn, ``Dealing with the thousands of chemicals individually, as both countries have chosen to do, has and will continue to be a never-ending quest.''
Part of the problem with chlorinated compounds is that they do not biodegrade easily but remain in the food chain, gathering into larger, more concentrated amounts through ``bioaccumulation.''
Environmental groups have seized upon commission findings to push for Clean Water Act amendments envisioned in the Clinton proposal and for the ``Chlorine Zero Discharge Act.''
``The IJC's findings also reinforce the need for Congress to adopt the incinerator-moratorium bill,'' said Rick Hind, legislative director for the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign. Environmentalists say burning wastes for disposal spews toxins into the air. When burned, chlorinated compounds produce dioxin.
Noting studies tying some organochlorines to cancer and birth defects, Sierra Club Great Lakes specialist George Coling said: ``The debate on whether to phase out these chemicals is over.... The only legitimate public-policy question is how to achieve the virtual elimination of these chemicals.''
``The Joint Commission is right on target,'' says Jessica Landman, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney. ``We need a coordinated strategy to achieve our goal of virtually eliminating toxic pollutants from the Great Lakes ecosystem.''