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Greenpeace Position on Chlorine Needs Disinfectant

The Washington Times

October 13, 2002

The editorial by Rick Hind of Greenpeace ("Opposition to Chemical Plant Security Unconscionable," Sept. 29) misstates some of the facts related to the use of chlorine to disinfect drinking water and wastewater supplies. As an example, Mr. Hind notes that the Blue Plains wastewater treatment facility of Washington, D.C., "substituted chlorine for safer chemicals" in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In actuality, Blue Plains switched from one form of chlorine disinfection (chlorine gas) to another (sodium hypochlorite), a decision that utility officials made well before September 11.

Mr. Hind's organization, Greenpeace, has been trying to ban all uses of chlorine for more than a decade, seemingly oblivious to the numerous public health benefits of this extremely useful element. It appears they are wrapping their arguments with September 11, under the guise of security.

As a former Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization official, I have observed the negative impact that inaccurate or distorted news releases can have on public health so I cannot let the article go unchallenged.

An example of the harm that well-meaning but misguided alarm can cause became succinctly evident during the cholera epidemic that hit Latin America in 1991. The health risk associated with disinfection byproducts (DBPs) had been overblown by the media. As a result, the general public perception was that everyone drinking water with DBPs exceeding the WHO Drinking Water Quality Guidelines would get cancer, even though the scientifically estimated risk was 1 additional case of cancer per 100,000 persons after a lifetime of exposure.

During the initial stages of the epidemic of this classical waterborne disease, I personally witnessed two national public health officials reject recommendations to chlorinate community water supplies, because of their concern for disinfection byproducts (DBPs). At the same time hundreds of new cases of cholera were occurring daily and approximately 1 percent of them were fatal. It took almost two additional months before orders to chlorinate were promulgated. The Latin America cholera epidemic resulted in more than 1 million illnesses and more than 10,000 deaths.

There are multiple pathways for the transmission of cholera but drinking water is usually the most important. In the communities where chlorination of water supplies was adequate and continuous, it was possible to control the cholera epidemic. Where there was no chlorination, the incidence of the disease was alarming and there was suffering and death that could have been prevented.

It must be remembered that chlorination also is an effective measure against the transmission of many other diseases besides cholera. It is for that reason that, for more than 100 years, chlorine has been added to drinking water to destroy disease- causing bacteria and viruses. Since the introduction of chlorine disinfection of water supplies, waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid that were the scourge of previous generations essentially have been eliminated in the United States, contributing to an increase in life expectancy by more than 25 years since the early 1900s. Indeed, the prevalence of chlorine disinfection is one of the reasons the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently declared U.S. drinking water is the safest it has been in 30 years.

Finally, chlorination of drinking water is probably the single most economical public health measure. The cost of chlorinating a person's water supply in Latin America is less than 50 cents for an entire year.

It is important to bear in mind the indispensable contribution made by water disinfection to the higher living standards and lifespans that are part of our modern world. Life magazine cited the filtration of drinking water and use of chlorine disinfection as "probably the most significant public health advance in the millennium." The World Health Organization estimates that 3.4 million people, mostly children, die each year from water-related diseases and that an additional 2.4 billion lack ready access to basic water sanitation. Adequate chlorination of water supplies whether in community water systems or at the household level could prevent many of these diseases. It is a disservice to frighten the poorest people of the world away from one of the few effective preventive measures they can afford to carry out.

These facts tell me it is important to keep risks in the proper perspective. Our focus should be on the protection of human life and well-being. Over time, chlorine has proven to be a part of the solution, not the "super poison" cited by Mr. Hind.

Fred Reiff
Professional engineer (retired)
Pan American Health Organization


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