Chlorine is one of the world’s most widely used chemicals, the building element vital to almost every United States industry. We use chlorine and chlorine-based products whenever we drink a glass of water, buy food wrapped in plastic, purchase produce in the supermarket, pour bleach into a washing machine, have a prescription filled, print out a computer document like this one, or even drive a car. (Abelson 94) Chlorine, a member of the halogen (salt-forming) group of metallic elements, was first made by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1774, who treated hydrochloric acid with manganese dioxide. In 1810, the English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy determined that chlorine was a chemical element and named it from the Greek word meaning greenish-yellow.
One hundred and eighty-five years later, chlorine compounds are ubiquitous components in the manufacturing of paper, plastics, insecticides, cleaning fluids, antifreeze, paints, medicines, and petroleum products. The unfortunate and unavoidable by-product of these manufacturing processes is dioxin, one of the most toxic substances on the planet earth. Dioxins are also produced whenever chlorine containing substances, such as PVC, are burned. Life as we know it will change, if a Greenpeace campaign is successful. The powerful environmental group has mounted a well-organized campaign that has as its objective nothing less than a total, worldwide ban on chlorine. With the public health and billions of dollars at stake, the debate over chlorine has become one of the world’s most contentious and controversial issues. “Is a chlorine-free future possible?” asked Bonnie Rice, a spokesperson for Greenpeace’s Chlorine Free Campaign.
“Yes, it can be done without massive disruption of the economy and of society, if it is done in the right matter.” (Gossen 94) The chlorine industry and its allies say a total ban on chlorine would be neither wise, possible, nor economically feasible. “We find the chlorine campaign outrageous in its scope and purpose,” explained Leo Anziano, the Chairman of the Washington-based Chlorine Chemistry Council, and organization that lobbies on behalf of the chlorine industry. “We believe it’s based on pure emotion and not on science. Without any real study, it’s been determined that all organochlorines (compounds containing chlorine) are harmful”. The chlorine industry has presented many statistics on what it says will be the cast to society of substituting other substances for chlorine, and these figures are staggering.
The net cost to consumers would exceed $90 billion a year, about $1,440 a year for a family of four, according to studies conducted by the Chlorine Institute. About 1.3 million jobs depend on the chlorine industry, an amount equal to the number of jobs in the state of Oregon. Wages and salaries paid to those employees totaled more than $31 billion in 1990, approximately the same as the total payroll that year for all state and local government employees in Oregon. (WHO 94-95) With its call for a total ban, Greenpeace has gone beyond common sense and is jeopardizing the health and economic well-being of this country,” Anziano charged. Greenpeace is also well-armed with statistics. Their spokesmen argue that, if implemented with careful planning, the transition to a chlorine-free economy could save money, create new jobs, and be “economically and socially just.”
Greenpeace puts the savings from phasing-out chlorine at $80 to $160 billion annually. The phase out of chlorine would take place over a 30-year period and would involve substituting what Greenpeace describes as “traditional materials and non-chlorinated plastics.” In the pulp and paper industry, for example, a totally chlorine-free bleaching process would be implemented, while, in dry cleaning, water based systems would replace chlorine-based solvents. Nothing is more contentious in the chlorine debate than Greenpeace’s firm position that all chlorine and organochlorines threaten people and so should be banned. “Industry produces more than 11,000 chlorine chemicals, each of which could take years of study, ” explains Jack Weinburg, a spokesperson for Greenpeace’s Chlorine Campaign.
“Traditionally, we have looked at chemicals as being innocent until proven guilty. We need to change that approach.” (Greenpeace 94) Industry warns that it is a big mistake not to distinguish among chlorinated compounds because the mere presence of chlorine does not render a compound carcinogenic or harmful. “Regulations should target specific substances whose environmental harm has already been demonstrated through rigorous scientific studies,” says Anziano. “The sloppy reasoning used by Greenpeace and their allies is no substitute for careful risk analysis.” Science aside, much of the chlorine debate has been emotional, and nothing has made tempers flare more than the issue of whether a link exists between breast cancer and chlorinated pesticides and other chlorine-based chemicals.
Greenpeace has released a report, “Chlorine, Human Health and the Environment: The Breast Cancer Warning,” which reviews “new scientific evidence” linking chlorine-based chemicals to breast cancer, and epidemic that kills 50,000 women annually in the United States alone. Not surprisingly, industry has produced its own “scientific evidence.” For example, a study released by CanTox, a Canadian environmental consolation group, concluded that “it is evident … the proposed causal association (of breast cancer) to bio- accumulative chlorinated organic compounds should be rejected.” (CMR 4) This just proves the all-too clear point that a group, (namely Greenpeace), points a finger at a problem and then starts making generalizations about the causes and the effects of the problem, this not only causes a public outcry for an answer to the problem, but also a united defense put up by the big companies in question.
This could be taken as a sign that they have something to hide, but that is not very likely. In the titanic struggle over chlorine’s future, industry is clearly on the defensive. Recognizing that the court of public opinion will be the final arbiter on the issue, it has begun to shift its own public relations machine into gear. The Chemical Manufacturers Association has established the Chlorine Chemistry Counsel, which has a multi-million dollar budget, while big chemical companies such as Dow Chemical have created full-time positions with names like “Director of Chlorine Issues,” “We need to offer the public a different view of chlorine chemistry than the one the anti-chlorine forces have been purveying for years”, says Brad Lienhart, Managing Director of the Chlorine Chemistry Council.
The anti-chlorine camp, however, has garnered the support of several influential scientific, environmental, and international organizations, including the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes, the Paris Commission on the North Atlantic (a multinational-level meeting of 15 European governments and the European Community), the 21-nation Barcelona Convention on the Mediterranean, and the American Public Health Association. Strong anti-chlorine sentiment exists in the White House, the United States Environmental Protection Agency and in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives. President Clinton’s proposal for the Clean Water Act involves a strategy for reducing or prohibiting chlorine use. Meanwhile, the chlorine industry is worried that the Environmental Protection Agency watchers might curtail or even ban the production of chlorine and organochlorines.
These developments are making many chemical companies such as Vulcan and Dow Chemical look quietly for alternatives to chlorine and organochlorines. Dow, for example, has created a new business called Advanced Cleaning Systems, or ACS for short, which provides water-based cleaning technology for green industrial niches. “In the future, we have to be more critical of irresponsible chlorine and organochlorine use to protect the essential uses of both of these substances,” Tom Parrott, Vulcan’s Director of Environmental Health and Safety, explained to Chemical week. (Lucas 94) Though tempers seem to flare at this seemingly undecidable debate, the basis of the debate seems to be the solution. Banning or getting rid of chlorine, organochlorines, or most any other chemical can only cause more problems than they will solve unless a proven and effective alternative is developed to take the place of that chemical.
Most everyday things would have to drastically be altered to make suit for a complete chlorine ban, and that would take a great deal of time, effort, and money to do. If a ban on chlorine was implemented, who would be responsible for the cost and maintenance of switching the equipment: the consumer, the producer, Greenpeace and other environmental watch organizations, or the government? The brunt of the cost would most likely fall into the hands of the consumers, which would kill most middle and lower-class families. Chlorine is a building block of most of our everyday conveniences and a major player in most chemical compounds. Until a sturdy and cost-effective alternative is made, most of the everyday consumers will still have to go on using the same chlorine and organochlorine-based products that they have used for years before.