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The Bizarre History of Chlorine and Our Drinking Water

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Nearly every water treatment facility in the United States relies on chlorine disinfection. It’s been an effective water treatment method for over one hundred years, but recent scientific developments are causing many people to have new questions. When we look back on chlorine’s history, the so-called benefits may not be as “clean” as we initially thought.

The Quick History of Chlorine

A Swedish chemist discovered chlorine back in 1774. It’s a highly reactive, yellow-green poisonous gas. Today chlorine is used to make things like bleach and polyvinyl chloride (otherwise known as PVC), but it also has a kind of dark past. That’s because chlorine can make a variety of other dangerous chemicals.

Air conditioning and refrigeration units, as well as aerosol products, used to be made with chlorine compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Now those are known to cause serious environmental issues and have been banned in the U.S. Other tragic historical points for chlorine include its use as a chemical weapon World War I. The toxic chlorine gas killed thousands of soldiers and seriously wounded many others who breathed it. And of course, there’s the infamous chlorine compound DDT. That popular pesticide from the World War II era that had similar devastating impacts on the environment. Not such a pretty history, is it?

Fortunately, there is a lighter side to chlorine too. In the 1890s, facilities in England began using small amounts of chlorine  in their drinking water. The idea was to use chlorine in disinfectant applications to make the water relatively safer. The results were fantastic. Health officials had finally found a way for cities to provide a clean (but not quite perfect) water supply to their residents.

Chlorine in Drinking Water

The U.S. municipal water facilities first added chlorine in 1908. Waterborne pathogens like cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever suddenly dropped off. Lots and lots of lives were saved. Here’s just one statistic to help put that change in perspective: Before our cities’ drinking water added chlorine in 1908, the death rate of typhoid fever (25 people out of every 100,000) was about the same as automobile accidents today.

The public health effects of chlorination have been great for many years. One problem with chlorine though, is that it can’t combat certain protozoans that have emerged in recent years. Parasites such as Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia lamblia are pretty tough against chlorine, so the only way to remove them from drinking water is with special filtration.

Some of the disinfectant byproducts related to chlorine are causing concern as well. Because chlorine is so reactive, it’s easy for trihalomethanes (THMs) to show up in chlorinated water. So what’s a THM? The World Health Organization studies potential carcinogens and includes a couple THMs on its list. The CDC cites their findings, and gives two THMs (chloroform and bromodichloromethane) the label of “possible human carcinogen.” Two other THMs are currently “not classifiable” as carcinogenic, but many suspect those chlorination byproducts are harmful as well.

Whole-Home Water Filtration

The side effects of chlorine are causing more families to look at chlorine-free water options for their home. The best way to get this is with home filtration. The right drinking water systems can get rid of the odd taste of chlorine in your drinking water, as well as other water concerns like lead or the Crypto parasites. And if you want safe, clean water at every tap, you can’t go wrong with a whole-home system.

A lot of homeowners prefer the added bonus of having a water softener with a built-in refiner. That way, the chlorine is removed from your water before you even turn on the faucet. Chlorinated water is often dry and damaging on skin (no surprise, given its history), so homeowners usually notice a difference in their water right away—especially in the shower. Chlorine-free soft water can feel like a real luxury for a lot of people!

The best whole-home filtration systems are also great for washing laundry. After all, chlorine is an ingredient for bleach. Removing it from your utility water can help clothes stay brighter, longer. And using soft water instead of hard water means your clean laundry will feel softer too. Chlorine certainly has a mixed history with the good, the bad, and ugly. But the right filter can help keep the future clean.

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