Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


April 2002
Chlorine: Almighty Cleaner or Nightmare Toxin?

By Rachel Cernansky



It’s one of the elements—a naturally occurring gas—and often deemed the epitome of human hygiene. So why is chlorine the very 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 is a brief overview of chlorine and why it’s 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, it’s 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 let’s face it—where 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 it’s 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 odors—those that would (and should) be a natural deterrent to our senses—actually increases the risk of overexposure, as we, ironically, enjoy the pleasant fragrances and freely inhale the fumes, sometimes even neglecting to air the room 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 (the natural material which holds the cellulose fibers together in wood) in order to create a pulp, and then to turn the paper white. It’s 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 don’t readily break down. As a carcinogen 300,000 times more potent than DDT, it’s not encouraging to know that each day we ingest 300 to 600 times more than the EPA’s 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; it’s in your bleached napkins, paper plates and diapers.

But that’s 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 skin—having leached from their clothing—and 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 them 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 dioxins off the skin, sending them down the drain into the environment as runoff.

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 in both women and men. But while dioxin is the most infamous toxin from chlorine products and processes, organochlorines don’t have such a good reputation either. Also long-lived and efficient travelers, these chemicals, present in every human being on the planet, are believed to mimic hormones once they enter the body, therefore disrupting the 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 science 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 our lives, 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 can’t pronounce it and you don’t know what it is, it’s probably not good for you—with 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 solutions—Karen Logan’s Clean House, Clean Planet (Pocket Books, 1997) is a great resource—or 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 Internet. Try these Web sites for further information and eco-friendly shopping: Seventh Generation,; GreenMarketplace,; EcoMall,; Co-op America,

Bathroom Reading

You’ve read all the bad news about chlorine and why it’s hazardous to your health. But it’s 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 doesn’t sound all that significant until you consider how dangerously potent these toxins are. On a good note, however, if you’ve heard the rumors about asbestos contamination in tampons, you can be comforted in knowing it’s only a rumor. Visit the FDA’s Web site to read an official statement on the matter (

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. Here’s 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. Natracare ( is one of many brands that makes both tampons and pads, and is quite easy to find.

Now men, don’t 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 you’ll 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 you’ll find it on the shelves of your grocery store—right 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.


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.