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The Dangers of Chlorine in Tap Water

While the upcoming years will likely see more and more impoverished people in possession of clean water, a new worry that already affects those inhabiting developed countries may arise: the effects of water filtration upon massive new quantities of people. Raw water from rivers, lakes and groundwater contains microorganisms. Some microorganisms, though not all, can be harmful to human health.

One such treatment to cleanse raw water of microorganisms is to implement chlorination, a disinfecting process that allows water to be publicly consumable, through the addition of chlorine to potential drinking water. Chlorine, therefore, is a water purifier. Though used in World War I and in the Iraq War as a chemical weapon, it is a common ingredient found in bleach and disinfectants. It is also an oxidant. While chlorination can help to destroy bacteria and viruses, it cannot eliminate all microbes from raw water. It is, however, one of the most popular and cost-effective measures among various water disinfection methods.

Yet, even minimal levels of chlorine found in drinking water can have adverse effects upon consumers. Unlike the more immediate and pronounced effects of malaria, typhoid, cholera, dysentery and other water-related diseases, water filtration can produce more subtle ailments. Bacteria contributing to Legionnaires’ disease, Pontiac fever, nontuberculous mycobacteria and other organisms can survive chlorination. In fact, mycobacteria can harm the lungs of those with compromised immune systems. The oxidant can also pose health risks by interacting with natural materials in water to form potentially dangerous byproducts. Evidence suggests that an increased risk of bladder cancer may be associated with an active consumption of chlorinated tap water. Though not as immediate as many of the diseases that plague developing countries, filtration imposes concern, due to its documented long-term health effects. Unlike common water-related diseases, chlorine-related health problems are harder to detect.

According to a UN estimate, nearly 40 billion hours are wasted each year in Sub-Saharan Africa collecting water. Such is a number equivalent to a year’s work of France’s entire workforce. Today, developing countries continue to see nearly 80 percent of illnesses related to inadequate water and sanitation. The World Health Organization, one of the leaders in educating and providing aid to water-impoverished nations, states that one of its primary beliefs is that “all people, whatever their stage of development and their social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to an adequate supply of safe drinking water.” Nevertheless, as global efforts continue to eradicate the water problem in developing countries, scientists, humanitarians and the public may have to face the prospect of third-world countries encountering a first-world problem.

– Ethan Safran

Sources: AllAfrica, EPA, WHO, New York Times, Safewater, The Water Project
Photo: Red Orbit