There is a quiet movement picking up momentum right now in the United States. If completed, it will change the face of plumbing forever. It’s the movement to ban chlorine.

A chlorine ban would mean the end of a product used extensively by plumbers, including its use as a germ-killer and in PVC piping. Beyond plumbing, chlorine is used in a wide array of products — from computers and cars to bullet proof glass and vests to vitamins and perfumes.

“It is one of the most wonderful and dangerous products,” said Julius Ballanco, a columnist for PM and president of JB Engineering and Code Consulting. “Chlorine is the ideal treatment for water, backyard pools and spas. It can be combined with polymers to make plastics.

“But combine it with a refrigerant or phosphor and you’ll get a gas that will kill you. Chlorine in a gaseous state is very deadly.”

Dr. James Todd, executive vice president of the American Medical Association, wrote in a letter to the Chemical Manufacturers Association: “Much of the increase in Americans’ longevity, from about 45 years in the early 1900s to about 76 at present, and the decrease of infant mortality from about 100 per 1,000 in the early 1900s to 8.2 in 1992 is due to the use of modern purification methods, including the use of chlorine.”

The Chlorine Chemical Council (CCC) says, “98 percent of all U.S. public water supplies that are disinfected are made clean and safe with chlorine or chlorine-based compounds.”

News Report

But some new reports suggest that chlorine in any form can be deadly.

According to Time Magazine, a team of Finnish scientists released a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that showed chlorine may be a carcinogen. The study found that MX, a compound produced when chlorine reacts with organic material in water, caused cancer in laboratory rats when swallowed in large quantities.

Every year, approximately 12 million tons of chlorine are produced in North America. The greatest volume of chlorine, about 35 percent, is used in the production of other important chemicals, including those used to make pharmaceuticals, says the CCC. About 85 percent of all medicines — prescription and over-the-counter — contain or are manufactured using chlorine.

Plastics consume more than 25 percent of the yearly output, while roughly 18 percent is used to produce solvents for metal working, dry cleaning and electronics. Ten percent is used for pulp and paper bleaching. The rest of the chlorine is used for drinking water purification and water-waste disinfection.

University of California biologist Bruce Ames has noted that if there is any risk of cancer from chlorinated water at all, it is one-thirtieth that of a serving of peanut butter.

The debate can continue on for a long time, with academics falling on either side of the fence. Certainly, one study is not enough to convince an experienced contractor.

Life Without Chlorine

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule in 1994 that would require water systems across the country to eliminate the chlorination process. Officials in Peru took the recommendation too seriously, and lowered the amount of chlorine used to disinfect its drinking water.

As a direct result of lowering the chlorine in the water, over 10,000 people died and more than one million became ill — mostly from cholera.

“It would be ludicrous to outright ban chlorine,” added Ballanco, who wrote a column on the subject in the May 1996 issue of PM. “There are other ways to treat water — if you want to triple the cost of it.”

“Chlorine should be noted as perhaps saving more lives throughout the world than any other chemical,” writes Abel Wolman, former president of the American Health Association and former chairman of the National Water Resources Board, in the preface of Waterborne Diseases in the United States.

Ban Virtually Impossible

From an economic viewpoint, it may be impossible to ban chlorine. The CCC says that the chlorine industry supports nearly 2 million jobs with an annual payroll of more than $52 billion. Additionally, the council says that almost 40 percent of U.S. jobs and income hinge on chlorine.

A ban on chlorine would cost U.S. consumers more than $91 billion per year for alternative products and processes — with no guarantee of equivalent performance or quality.

All 50 states have some role in the chlorine industry.

At this point, it would be virtually impossible to issue a blanket ban on chlorine. The plumbing industry has a vested interest in how the chlorine issue unfolds.

Is chlorine headed down the same path as Freon?