Chlorinated drinking water is generally regarded as one of the most important advances in public health. Yet the lifesaving practice of chlorination has never been in such jeopardy as it is now -- thanks to an unfortunate alliance between junk science-fueled environmentalists and overzealous homeland security officials.
Chlorine has long been a target of environmentalists who view the element as a cornerstone of the chemical industry, which they loathe. Since the 1970s, they’ve been trying to alarm the public by goading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization to issue scary reports about chlorinated drinking water posing a potential cancer risk.
Though no credible scientific data actually links chlorinated drinking water with increased cancer risk, the scare has had some terrible consequences.
During the Peruvian cholera outbreak in January-February 1991, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) directed health and water agencies to take measures to ensure all water distribution systems were chlorinated, a very effective technique for killing or inactivating the cholera pathogen.
But as recounted in a new paper authored by Fred Reiff, a Pan-American Health Organization official from 1981-1995, the PAHO encountered resistance to chlorination from local health officials in Peru and other countries. Press releases and reports from the EPA and WHO had raised concern that chlorination by-products may increase cancer risk.
“It was pointed out to all that when the cholera pathogen is present in the water supply, the risk of contracting the disease is immediate and that a resulting epidemic could cause thousands of deaths,” says Reiff.
“In contrast, the hypothetical health risk posed by [chlorination by-products] at levels in excess of those recommended by the WHO and the EPA was one extra death per 100,000 persons exposed for a period of 70 years. Unfortunately, some of those well-meaning, but ill-informed officials had to experience the immense proportional difference in risk before accepting this reality,” added Reiff.
The “reality” referred to by Reiff includes about 10,000 deaths and 1,000,000 cases of cholera during the epidemic.
Despite the Peruvian cholera tragedy and the fact that countries with the safest drinking water -- that is chlorinated drinking water -- tend to have lower childhood death rates, environmentalists are still pressing their campaign against chlorination. They have a new tactic, however -- whipping up fears of terrorist attacks on water treatment facilities that disinfect water with chlorine gas. It’s a concern that’s been picked up by some in our ever-expanding homeland security industry.
A 2004 report by President Bush’s Homeland Security Council hypothesized a worse-case scenario of an explosive being set off near a tank of chlorine gas in a high-density area causing as many as 17,500 deaths, 10,000 severe injuries and 100,000 hospitalizations.
“The fact that any facility in a major urban area is still using chlorine gas is outrageous,” said Carol Andress of the activist group Environmental Defense, according to the May 29 Boston Globe.
A Greenpeace spokesman told the Boston Globe that if we only stopped transporting chlorine gas, the need to improve rail and truck security would be diminished.
Environmentalist-friendly politicians are also getting in on the act, according to the Globe. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., plan to introduce legislation to help cities pay the costs (up to $12.5 million per water treatment plant plus another $1.4 million per year) of switching from chlorine gas to alternatives like ozone or ultraviolet light technologies -- all of which are less effective and cost more than chlorine gas.
But the mere presence of chlorine gas tanks isn't likely to make a facility a terrorist target anyway.
Chlorine gas is heavier than air and, if released, would remain low, hug the ground, and disperse quickly. Because it's visible, it's easily avoided. Chlorine released via explosion would probably rise with the heat of the resulting fire and disperse harmlessly in the atmosphere.
The U.S. chemical industry has produced more than a billion tons of chlorine in the past 80 years. Not a single chlorine release within a facility has resulted in a single fatality outside a facility's property line.
That's not to say that a terrorist attack couldn't cause some harm. Facilities where chlorine gas is stored and used certainly need to take reasonable steps to ensure their security.
But it’s not clear that such steps should entail risking the general safety of drinking water systems. We should also keep in mind that chlorination, which is the only drinking water disinfectant process that works from the treatment plant all the way to the tap, is one of our best defenses against a terrorist attack with biological pathogens on our drinking water systems.
Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).