Chlorine: Basic Benefits, Universal Uses

Presentation Of C.T. Howlett,
Vice President/Managing Director
Chlorine Chemistry Council

before the United Nations
Economic Commission for Europe
Working Party on the Chemical Industry
September 27, 1995

Good afternoon. I'm very pleased to be here today to talk about the about the many benefits that chlorine and the products of chlorine chemistry provide to society. Frankly, that's where we, at the Chlorine Chemistry Council, believe the public debate over chlorine should begin and end.

From the start of human life on earth, chlorine has been an essential element for survival. Without sodium chloride -- salt -- there would be no life. Just as herbivores need their salt licks to survive, scientists now believe that our primitive ancestors began to kiss as a way of extracting a few milligrams of salt from each other's cheeks and lips.

Since that early beginning, chlorine has done a "world of good." For more than a century, chlorine has been saving lives and making the world a safer, more enjoyable and more productive place. So essential is chlorine to modern life, that it has been called "the single material on which production of other chemicals most depends." In short, chlorine's benefits are as universal as its uses.

But the contributions of chlorine chemistry are much greater than the sum of its individual benefits. Chlorine chemistry is also critical to achieving the goal of modern environmental protection -- sustainable development. Through chlorine chemistry, the twin goals of environmental progress and continued economic growth become compatible, not mutually exclusive.

With that as a brief introduction, let me tell you a little about the Chlorine Chemistry Council. The C-3, as we call it, is a council of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and is located in Washington, D.C. Created in 1993 in the wake of environmental activists' calls for a ban on chlorine, our mission is to participate in the growing political and public debate about chlorine chemistry. In this role, C-3 develops and implements programs that convey the benefits of chlorine chemistry and the practice and understanding of responsible stewardship for chlorine chemistry and chlorine-based products. We also work with our "sister" organizations, such as Euro Chlor, in other parts of the world, and coordinate the International Group of Chlorine Chemistry Associations.

The benefits that chlorine brings to society are many. But let me start with a simple, yet overwhelming fact: the use of chlorine and chlorine-related compounds as disinfectants and pharmaceuticals have saved more lives than any other chemical in the history of the human race.

Yet despite this incomparable record, the war against chlorine continues to escalate. To many environmental activists these days, such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, chlorine is "public enemy number one."

Calling for a ban on all industrial uses of chlorine, these groups tag chlorine and chlorinated compounds as the "root of all evil," responsible for a broad range of adverse health effects, from cancer, to reproductive, to hormonal to immune system problems.

No one -- including myself and C-3 -- would suggest for a moment that these are not serious health and environmental concerns that need addressing. We know that we don't have all the answers. We know that more information is needed. But we also know the harm a rush to judgment can do, particularly when one of the fundamental building blocks of modern life that has saved countless numbers of lives is at stake. That is why C-3 and our members are working to address these questions by sponsoring scientific research to fill in the information gaps and ensure that the chlorine industry follows the principles of Responsible Care in the manufacture, use and disposal of the products of chlorine chemistry.

What is so vexing about the current debate over chlorine chemistry is this: Rather than being guided by what we know -- the scientific facts about chlorine and chlorinated compounds and the many benefits they have brought to society -- the debate is revolving around what we don't know and the fears that spring from a lack of understanding and rush to judgment.

The problem with the charges being levied by chlorine's opponents is that while they might grab attention and make eye-catching headlines in the media, the scientific data to support a chlorine ban or restrictions on its uses are sketchy or non-existent.

All of which just goes to prove the lingering wisdom of an observation by the philosopher Bertrand Russell:

"The degree of one's emotion varies inversely with one's knowledge of the facts -- the less you know, the hotter you get."

Greenpeace would have the public and its political leaders believe that chlorine is "absolute death." Beginning with bumper stickers calling for "Chlorine Free in 93," the group's campaign in 1995 has turned to billboard ads in Europe that preposterously claim that the "male member" has shrunk and that sperm counts are decreasing as a result of the use of PVC plastic.

Lost in these sensationalist charges are the thousands of ways that chlorine and the products of chlorine chemistry have benefited society for 150 years. To move the debate about chlorine from Greenpeace's slanderous characterization of "Absolute Death" to the scientific reality of "Absolute Necessity" therefore requires two things: a strong dose of common sense, and second, a focus on scientific fact.

In other words, the debate over chlorine needs to get back to reality. And a realistic approach to the chlorine issue must start with common sense -- the voice that urges the greatest good for the greatest number; the voice that urges a solution that weaves us together as a society, not a solution that fragments us further; the voice that urges us to grant greater weight to chlorine chemistry's many tangible societal benefits than to allegations of hypothetical risks.

Chlorine's benefits fall into five major categories:

In the time remaining, I will provide an overview of each:

First, disinfection. Before chlorine, a drink of water could kill you. Fortunately, since the advent of water chlorination, these epidemic diseases, which once killed tens of thousands, have been virtually wiped out in the United States, Europe and other developed nations.

Hailed as one of history's greatest public health advances, water made safe by chlorination has also contributed to a 50 percent-plus increase in life expectancy and a dramatic decline in infant mortality rates.

Just as water is essential to life, chlorine is essential to safe water. This fundamental fact is tragically illustrated every day by the more than 25,000 people around the world who die each day from diseases associated with dirty drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.

In addition, one only needs to look to the cholera epidemic in Peru that took thousands of lives in the late 1980s after the country stopped chlorinating its water out of concerns over exposures to Trihalomethanes (THMs). This tragedy clearly illustrates that as far as safe water is concerned, the real dangers the world faces without the benefits of chlorine chemistry far outweigh the hypothetical risks of chlorinated compounds.

Aside from its essential role in water purification, chlorine is also one of the most effective and economical germ-killers against a wide array of life-threatening infections, viruses and bacteria, such as HIV, salmonella, E. Coli, and campylobacter.

Simply put, nothing cleans like chlorine. Homes, hospitals, hotels, restaurants and other public places such as nursing homes, schools, day care centers, resorts, spas, and cruise ships are all made cleaner and safer thanks to chlorine.

Chlorine also is a cornerstone of modern medicine. Today, about 85 percent of all pharmaceuticals contain or are manufactured with chlorine. These drugs include vitamins and medicines that treat heart disease, cancer, AIDS, ulcers, arthritis, pneumonia, depression, diabetes, allergies and colds, ear infections, malaria, and meningitis to name a few. Almost one-third of central nervous system drugs contain chlorine, while 98 percent of gastrointestinal medications use chlorine.

Chlorine also makes possible a wide variety of medical equipment. An estimated 25 percent of all medical devices in hospitals contain or are made with chlorine. Among them are IV and blood bags, X-ray and mammography film, syringes, oxygen tents, diagnostic instruments, sterile tubing packaging, coolers for organ transplants, surgical sutures, and artificial blood vessels.

Chlorine helps improve human health in other ways too. About 96 percent of all crop protection chemicals use chlorine in the manufacturing process. Thanks to these chemicals, society can count on a wide selection of nutritious and low-cost grains and produce. It is estimated that chlorine-reliant crop protection chemicals contribute to a 23 - 40 percent increase in production yield. Clearly, without chlorine's help in controlling pests, diseases and weeds, there would be far more food shortages and failed crops all over the world.

The products of chlorine chemistry not only save lives, they make the world a much safer place. Chlorine chemistry has helped make possible some of the most important public safety advances in recent years, such as bullet-resistant vests that have saved thousands of police officers lives, and the special plastic known as "bullet-resistant glass" that provides protection in security vehicles, police cars and bank teller windows. Chlorine also helps fire fighters "take the heat," by contributing to the manufacture of fire-resistant clothing and helmets.

And though you might not have realized it, chlorine makes everyday life a lot safer. Seat belts and airbags, two of the most important devices in automobile safety, are both possible thanks to chlorine chemistry.

Chlorine also helps make our everyday lives a lot more enjoyable and productive. Used to make one of the world's most widely used and versatile plastics -- polyvinyl chloride (or PVC) -- chlorine plays a role in everything from car upholstery to card tables, garden hoses to golf bags, rain coats to recreational equipment and wallpaper to window frames.

As a major factor in the technological advances that have revolutionized communications, chlorine chemistry contributes to the production of the microprocessors and wires in computers, computer disks, and the plastic housings for computers, keyboards and telephones.

Virtually every part of the home is touched by chlorine's benefits. From the ground up, many are constructed and decorated with chlorine-related products such as vinyl siding, windows and plumbing pipes; nylon carpeting, house paint, and fiberglass insulation. Inside the home, chlorine contributes to everything from clean, disinfected tap water, to household cleaners and bleach, to food packaging and plastic wraps, to televisions.

Traveling away from home, chlorine is there nearly every step of the way, contributing to the construction of automobiles, aircraft and trains. Even space vehicles and rocket fuel depend on chlorine chemistry.

When you think about it, the many benefits of chlorine chemistry can be summed up in three words: Chlorine Saves Lives. And when you think a little more, it's readily apparent that life simply would not be the same without chlorine.

But chlorine's benefits do not just exist in the present; they will extend into the future, particularly where the environment and human health are concerned.

The pulp and paper industry's switch to elemental chlorine-free (ECF) bleaching provides a clear example of how chlorine chemistry can be part of the answer to improving our environment, while maintaining economic growth. Through the use of chlorine dioxide, elemental chlorine-free bleaching represents the best of both worlds by virtually eliminating the presence of dioxin in mill waste water and pulp products, while still providing the highest quality recyclable white paper and saving precious forest resources.

Worldwide, ECF production and market share dwarfs that of "Totally Chlorine Free" bleaching or TCF. Although TCF producers and environmental groups such as Greenpeace are pushing the use of TCF, consumer demand is not pushing back. While ECF has captured more than 40 percent of the world market since 1990, TCF's share remains relatively small at only 7 percent, with production confined to Northern Europe, and in particular, Scandinavia.

In Western Europe as well as Scandinavia, ECF commands the lion's share of the market -- with production standing at more than twice that of TCF and a two thirds market share.

The switch to ECF production is benefiting the environment. Aquatic eco systems downstream of North American paper mills have recovered, and similar ecosystem responses are occurring elsewhere. Although TCF manufacturers and others want the public to believe that Totally Chlorine-Free bleaching is environmentally better than Elemental Chlorine-Free bleaching, the data do not support their claims.

Elemental chlorine-free bleaching also appears to offer significant environmental advantages over TCF. Specifically, recent evidence indicates that TCF pulp manufacture increases wood consumption by about 10 percent. This means that if pulp and paper mills were TCF, the annual increase in forest resources required would equal about 100 million mature trees. Furthermore, TCF reduces paper's recyclability by damaging cellulose fibers.

Though society tends to quickly forget, chlorine chemistry over the years has provided other solutions that have allowed us to minimize or eliminate risks and improve the environment. For example, DDT, although now banned, helped rid malaria from much of the world decades ago. Today, two other products of chlorine chemistry -- polyvinyl chloride plumbing pipes and house paints based on titanium dioxide -- are helping to reduce the public's exposure to lead.

In the future, chlorine chemistry will make possible other advancements in productivity, environmental protection and human health that will benefit the world community.

Already chlorine chemistry has proved Thomas Malthus wrong. Thanks to modern crop protection chemicals -- the overwhelming majority of which are based on processes using chlorine -- hardly anyone in the more affluent nations of the world has experienced malnutrition or starvation.

But a crisis is coming. The world population is increasing by more than 90 million a year (despite what Greenpeace says about chlorine declining sperm counts). This means that by the year 2000, almost one billion more people will have to be fed than at the beginning of this decade. To meet this demand, more food will have to be produced in the next 50 years than was required in the last 200 years.

Given that almost all the planet's reserves of land for cultivation are exhausted, and that we cannot afford to take over further areas of ecologically important land, such as rain forests, where does the solution lie to this coming world food crisis?

Chlorine chemistry. If our population is exploding and our arable land is finite, the answer is to make existing agricultural resources more productive and sustainable through managed crop protection programs. This will be particularly critical for Third World nations, where 95 percent of the population growth is expected.

Thanks to chlorine chemistry, a new generation of crop protection products will make it possible to safeguard more of the world's food supply against losses from insects, pests, plant diseases and weeds, while at the same time posing no risk to human health or the environment. If current losses can be reduced by half, the world population will have 35 million tons more food -- six kilograms for every inhabitant -- for consumption every year.

Chlorine chemistry holds the key to environmental progress in another way. More precious forest resources could be saved if homes, particularly in developing nations, were constructed of vinyl siding made with PVC plastic rather than wood. I doubt the proponents of a PVC ban ever stopped to think of PVC's environmental benefits, but they are undeniable: by decreasing the need for wood, PVC helps save habitats, arable land and endangered species.

Finally, an unwanted by-product of chlorine chemistry -- dioxin -- one of the engines driving the chlorine debate -- may ironically help provide a cure for breast cancer. Exciting new work being carried out in several medical laboratories in the U.S. indicates that dioxin may hold the key to unlocking new pathways for the treatment of breast cancer. Working on the identification and function of gene targets for the dioxin receptor in breast cells, researchers believe that depending on the level of dioxin exposure, chemoprotection against breast cancer may be observed. Let me be perfectly clear that no one is suggesting a recommended "dose of dioxin" that is good for you. What is important about this work is that it further underscores the point that there is much we do not know about dioxin's health effects. According to this new research, dioxin at certain exposure levels--even 2,3,7,8-TCDD -- appears to provide a form of chemoprotection, similar to that which has been attributed to components in broccoli and other vegetables.

Yet the picture of chlorine as a societal benefit, environmental protector and potential anti-cancer contributor is not "politically correct" in some circles. Clearly chlorine is suffering from a severe "image problem." But the truth about chlorine, as any chemist knows, is that like other elements, it is merely one building block with certain unique and useful features which can contribute to the structure and properties of a diversity of molecules.

The fact is that organochlorines are not a homogenous family. They do not all possess similar properties of toxicity, persistence or bioaccumulation.

Rather, there is a broad spectrum of chlorinated compounds with a wide range of physical and chemical properties. At one end are compounds such as dioxins, furans and DDT that are persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative. However at the other end of the spectrum are many chlorinated organics that are used in pharmaceuticals and find applications as additives in many ordinary products from foodstuffs to shaving cream.

The point is not whether chlorine is good or bad -- it simply is a basic element of life. The focus, rather, should be what we do with it and how we use it to improve society.

As Don Mackay, a professor in the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto, wrote in a 1992 issue of Environmental Science & Engineering:

"Steel, which forms the murderous handgun, can also form the life-saving scalpel. Like steel, chlorine is neutral, neither good nor bad. It is how we as a society shape it and exploit it that determines the benefits and disbenefits."

The challenge to our industry and to the governments of the world therefore should be to foster practices and policies that enable us to the derive maximum benefits from this powerful element without harming the environment or human life. The industry's commitment to sustainable development and Responsible Care are two ways we are meeting this challenge.

Another is to cool the hot emotion of the debate by returning it to the confines of a discussion based on common sense and scientific fact.

And what do they tell us? First, that chlorine is one of the eight fundamental building blocks for modern society. So important is chlorine to life that virtually every product manufactured today benefits in some way from chlorine, from plumbing pipes to X-ray film, medicines to seat belts, household bleach to rocket fuel, blood bags to computers, and tap water to bullet-resistant vests.

Second, that all organochlorines are not alike, and that the scientific data to support a "one size fits all" chlorine ban or restrictions simply don't exist.

In the end, when chlorine chemistry's risks are properly balanced against its myriad societal benefits, we believe the world will see that the benefits of chlorine chemistry far outweigh its risks, and the risks that do exist can be managed in a way that protects human health, continues environmental progress, and ensures sustained economic growth for the nations of the world.

Thank you.

Presentation of C.T. "Kip" Howlett of the Chlorine Chemistry Council
September 27, 1995