Chlorine on tap: don’t drink it

Chlorine is regularly used in our public water supply to combat infectious waterborne diseases, but it may be doing more harm than good. A public notice issued in Washington, DC, warned that a high level of bacteria in the chlorinated, fluoridated city-system water made it unsafe for dialysis, AIDS and organ-transplant patients, the elderly and infants.

Chlorine oxidises lipid contaminants in the water, and creates oxysterols and free radicals, It destroys protective acidophilus, which nourishes and cooperates with the ‘friendly’ organisms lining the colon, where about 60 per cent of our immune cells operate (Funct Med Update, 2003). It combines with organic impurities in the water to make trihalomethanes (THMs), or chloramines, which are carcinogens.

In a study of more than 5000 pregnant women in California, researchers found that women who drank more than five glasses a day of tapwater that contained more than 75 parts per billion (ppb) of THMs had a 9.5 per cent risk of spontaneous abortion. Women who were less exposed showed 5.7 per cent risk (J Am Water Works Assoc, 1992; Apr: 29).

Chlorine in swimming pools reacts with organic matter such as sweat, urine, faeces and skin cells to form more chloramines. Chloroform risk can be 70 to 240 times higher in the air over indoor pools (J Exp Anal Environ Epidemiol, 1994: 4: 491-502). Canadian researchers found that, after an hour of swimming in a chlorinated pool, chloroform concentrations in the swimmers’ blood was 100-1093 ppb (Sci News, 1995; 147: 5).

You inhale chloroform every time you take a warm shower or bath in hot chlorinated water. Researchers recorded increases in chloroform concentration in bathers’ lungs of about 2.7 ppb after a 10-minute shower. Worse, warm water causes the skin to act like a sponge so that more chlorine is absorbed during a 10-minute shower than by drinking eight glasses of the same water. This irritates the eyes, sinuses, throat, skin and lungs, dries the hair and scalp, and can weaken immunity.

Dishwashers pollute indoor air with chlorinated organics created from detergents when chlorine reacts with food scraps. The machines vent 5-7 L of air into the house every minute of their operation. The use of ceramic disks instead of detergents will completely avoid the problem, and are said to be about 75 per cent cheaper than detergent (J Am Water Works Assoc, 1988; Feb: 40).

Excess free radicals created by chlorinated water also generate dangerous toxins in the body. These toxins have been directly linked to liver malfunction, weakening of the immune system and pre-atherosclerotic changes in arteries. Excessive free radicals have been linked to alterations of cellular DNA. Chlorine also destroys antioxidant vitamin E, which is needed to counteract excess oxysterols and free radicals.

A study in the late 1970s analysing thousands of cancer deaths found that chlorinated water appears to increase the risk of gastrointestinal cancer over a person’s lifetime by 50-100 per cent. This was water containing chlorine at or below the US Environmental Protection Agency’s standard and 'is going to make the EPA standard look ridiculous', according to Dr Robert Harris, the lead scientist in the study (New York Times, 17 October 1980).

A later meta-analysis estimated that chlorine accounted for 9 per cent of bladder cancers and 18 per cent of rectal cancers (Am J Publ Health, 1997; 87: 1168-76). Chlorinated water is associated, too, with a higher risk of combined cancers (Am J Publ Health, 1992; 82: 955-63). In addition, chlorine in treated water can cause allergic symptoms, from skin rash to intestinal symptoms, arthritis and headaches.

DCA (dichloroacetic acid) in chlorinated water can alter cholesterol metabolism, changing ‘good’ HDL to ‘bad’ LDL, and cause liver cancer.

There’s now a new hazard in chlorinated water: a byproduct called ‘MX’. A research team in Finland discovered that, by causing genetic mutations, MX initiates cancer, at least in lab animals (J Natl Cancer Inst, 1997; 89: 832-3, 848-56).

In the US, illnesses caused by drinking water already top one million a year and increasing exponentially. Deaths are estimated to be 9000 per year (Prev Med Update, 1994; Nov).

EPA tests have shown over 2100 organic and inorganic chemicals (including pesticides, heavy metals, radon, radioactive particles and parasites like Cryptosporidium) in the water we drink; 156 of them are carcinogens. Of those, 26 are tumour-promoting. Exposure to Cryptosporidium in those with lowered GI immune function can lead to chronic infection (JAMA, 1994; 272: 1597-600).

In Minnesota, scientists propagated embryos from healthy frogs in ordinary tapwater. Some of the frogs had no legs or six legs, or an eye in the middle of the neck. Deformed frogs have been found in tapwater in the US, Canada and Japan (Washington Post, 1 October 1997, p A12). These findings have now been traced to fluoridation of the water.

Residents in the small town of Rose-to, Pennsylvania, had no heart attacks despite a diet rich in saturated animal fats and milk - until they moved away from Roseto’s mountain spring water and drank chlorinated water. After that, with the same diet, they had heart attacks (Price JM, Coronaries/Cholesterol/ Chlorine, NY: Pyramid, 1969). However, detailed comparisons and a follow-up were never done.

The incidence of heart attacks closely matches the areas where, and times when, water was chlorinated. Chlorination spread throughout America in the second and third decades of the last century, about 20 years before the mushrooming of heart attacks.

Joseph G. Hattersley
Joseph Hattersley is a medical researcher