Almighty Cleaner or Nightmare Toxin?
By Rachel Cernansky
Its one of the elementsa naturally occurring
often deemed the epitome of human hygiene. So why is chlorine the
substance responsible for the most number of calls to the national
Poison Control Centers for children under six? We often hear of
it as the all-powerful
conqueror of germs and dirt, but we rarely hear about the dangers
it poses, unless we consciously seek out this information. Following
a brief overview of chlorine and why its dangerous.
Technically, it occurs naturally, but only in rare circumstances. The
rest of our ubiquitous chlorine supply is formed from a synthetic process
whereby an electrical current is passed through salt water or melted
salt in order to split the molecule and create isolated chlorine. This
is the form we find in practically everything, whether as a major ingredient
or through indirect contamination, but in very few cases are we even
aware of its presence.
In your home, its found in most commercial cleaning products:
dishwashing detergents, bathroom cleaners, disinfectants, and, of course,
bleach, to name a few. Breathing the fumes irritates the lungs, a risk
magnified when the product is used in small, poorly ventilated areas,
and lets face itwhere else is in more need of cleaning than
those very rooms, e.g. the mildew-prone bathroom? A second danger of
chlorine is also integrated in the process by which its applied.
From within your washing machine and dishwasher, for example, chlorine
is transferred from the water-detergent mix to the air through a process
called volatilization, contaminating the air you breathe. The worst
case is when you first open the dishwasher and breathe in that gust
of steamy mist. Nearly as dangerous are the airborne, chlorinated organic
chemicals produced when chlorine mixes with the dirt in the clothes
that the machine and detergent are so good at removing. A third problem
with these convenient products lies in their clean, fresh
scents. Disguising the chemicals true odorsthose that would
(and should) be a natural deterrent to our sensesactually increases
the risk of overexposure, as we, ironically, enjoy the pleasant fragrances
and freely inhale the fumes, sometimes even neglecting to air the
in order to retain that fresh, just-cleaned scent.
Chlorine is also found in paper, applied not once but twice during
the production process: first to dissolve and rinse away the lignin
natural material which holds the cellulose fibers together in wood)
in order to create a pulp, and then to turn the paper white. Its
used in bleaching both wood pulp and recycled paper, generating a reaction
between the chlorine, lignin, and cellulose fibers that yields some
of the most toxic chemicals ever created, among them dioxins and organochlorines.
The worst part is that dioxins dont readily break down. As a carcinogen
300,000 times more potent than DDT, its not encouraging to know
that each day we ingest 300 to 600 times more than the EPAs established
safe dosage. Also, according to the EPA, the use of bleached
coffee filters alone is enough to exceed lifetime acceptable levels
of exposure, with anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of the dioxin typically
leaching into your pot. It leaches from the cardboard carton into the
milk you drink; its in your bleached napkins, paper plates
But thats not all. Chlorine is also in your clothes, even the
dark-colored ones: most cotton garments are first bleached to allow
the dye better adherence to the fabric. In various studies, participants
have shown measurable levels of dioxin on their skinhaving leached
from their clothingand while not all clothes are contaminated
equally, there is no way to know which articles are more contaminated
than others. And, even if you have dioxin-free garments, washing
with contaminated pieces can leach about seven percent of the dioxin
and furan (another toxic chlorine by-product) content, while another
16 percent leaks out into the sewage system. Plus, bathing washes
off the skin, sending them down the drain into the environment as
Why is dioxin so bad, anyway? Dioxin is notorious for its contribution
to immune system impairment, endometriosis, diabetes, neurotoxicity,
birth defects, decreased fertility, and reproductive dysfunction
both women and men. But while dioxin is the most infamous toxin from
chlorine products and processes, organochlorines dont have
such a good reputation either. Also long-lived and efficient travelers,
chemicals, present in every human being on the planet, are believed
to mimic hormones once they enter the body, therefore disrupting
homeostasis that our natural hormones work so hard to maintain. Effects
may include lower IQ levels, reduced fertility, genital deformities,
breast cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, significant sperm
count reduction, and abnormalities within the immune system. The
behind all the harmful effects of these toxins is endless, but all
boils down to a central idea: the more we can eliminate them from
the better off we are.
In an effort to live chemical-free, a general rule of thumb regarding
products and their ingredients would be if you cant pronounce
it and you dont know what it is, its probably not good for
youwith the exception of chlorine. Hailed by the Halosource Corporation
as simply the central pillar of modern hygiene upon which our
civilization rests, and by Dow Chemicals as the single most
important ingredient in modern [industrial] chemistry, chlorine
is a more dangerous chemical than the miracle cleaner it passes for.
Be attentive when examining products for its presence, as it often masquerades
under other aliases, including hypochlorite, sodium hypochlorite, and
chlorine dioxide (also misleadingly known as elemental chlorine-free).
So when shopping for clothes, look for unbleached materials; hemp and
organic cotton are readily available and easy to find if you look in
the right places. For household cleaners, you can opt to prepare your
own solutionsKaren Logans Clean House, Clean Planet (Pocket
Books, 1997) is a great resourceor purchase natural, safe products
from socially responsible companies. Despite the overwhelming burden
of all these chemicals, there is still a plethora of safe alternatives.
Your local health food store is a good place to start; so is the
Try these Web sites for further information and eco-friendly shopping:
Seventh Generation, www.seventhgen.com;
Co-op America, www.coopamerica.org.
Youve read all the bad news about chlorine
and why its hazardous to your health. But its everywhere,
why bother trying to escape it? Despite its seeming omnipresence, there
are a few easy ways to greatly reduce your exposure to these toxins.
For women, tampons and other feminine products are a good, and urgent,
place to start. Studies done in the UK have reported dioxin levels of
130 parts per trillion in tampons and 400 ppt in sanitary pads, which
doesnt sound all that significant until you consider how dangerously
potent these toxins are. On a good note, however, if youve heard
the rumors about asbestos contamination in tampons, you can be comforted
in knowing its only a rumor. Visit the FDAs Web site to
read an official statement on the matter (www.fda.gov/cdrh/ocd/tamponsabs.html).
But this is relief from only one of several potential hazards presented
by these products. When shopping for your feminine products, be sure
to establish certain criteria. Heres a quick summary to get you
started. You want unbleached, or at the very least non-chlorine bleached,
cotton, to eliminate the presence of dioxins; look for organically grown
cotton, to minimize your exposure to the pesticides, herbicides and
fertilizers used in conventional cotton production; and beware of tampons
wrapped in polypropylene, as well as tampons made from rayon, which
is treated with acids to facilitate making an absorbent, fibrous material.
is one of many brands that makes both tampons and pads, and is quite
easy to find.
Now men, dont feel left out. Even toilet tissue (not to mention
all other household paper products) can be a source of chlorine and
its dangers. Seventh Generation is an obvious resource for recycled,
non-chlorine bleached toilet tissue, but amazingly, so is one of the
mainstream brands youll find in any supermarket. New Jersey-based
Marcal Paper manufactures products using recycled paper from post-consumer
waste and non-chlorinated bleach. The best part is that youll
find it on the shelves of your grocery storeright next to Scott
and Charmin, which are made from virgin paper, bleached with chlorine.
So make conscientious but very simple choices and start detoxifying
your life today. R.C.