Dirty Water — Will the United States Repeat Peru's Chlorine Folly?

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Reason Magazine  ·  Chlorine

Enrique Ghersi’s voice shook with emotion as he spoke to a gathering of Latin American, British, and U.S. policy makers in January. Ten thousand Latin Americans have died of cholera in the past five years, according to the Pan American Health Organization, and more than a million have been made sick. Ghersi, a Peruvian congressman, blames "U.S. imperialism."

But this imperialism didn’t come at the point of a bayonet. It came from EPA pronouncements on the chlorination of drinking water.

Chlorine is the most effective killer of bacteria in water supplies. While other techniques such as ozonation or using ultraviolet light can kill bacteria at the point of contact, chlorine added to water keeps on killing all the way to the faucet. About three-fourths of all U.S. drinking water is chlorinated, while most of the rest is treated with a combination of chlorine and ammonia. "Chlorination and disinfection of the water supplies are the public health success stories of the century," says Carol Henry, director of the International Life Sciences Risk Science Institute.

But the broad class of chemicals known as chlorines has been under an all-out assault by American environmentalists lately, who accuse them of everything from thinning the ozone layer to causing cancer to reducing sperm counts to shrinking alligators’ penises. Greenpeace International, using the slogan "Chlorine kills!" (meaning people, not germs), has demanded the elimination of all man-made chlorine compounds. Such a drastic move, estimates the consulting firm Charles River Associates, would cost the U.S. economy $91 billion a year. Other critics, pointing to Peru, say it would cost many American lives.

The Peruvian government took the environmentalists and the EPA seriously. Peruvian bureaucrats bought the rhetoric wholesale and greatly reduced the chlorine pumped into the country’s water supply.

This action set the stage for horror when, Pan American Health Organization officials suspect, a Chinese freighter released its cholera-contaminated bilge water into Lima’s harbor. Eventually the bacteria made its way into open wells, which hadn’t been chlorinated, and to other fresh water supplies in which chlorine levels had fallen too low to kill the germ.

As is usual with epidemics, the rich have fared best. Peru’s rich can afford private water supplies and bottled water. But the poor, says Ghersi, "have been sacrificed for the EPA and the environmentalists."

Undaunted, the EPA is now taking action that may well endanger much of the U.S. water supply. Citing hypothetical cancer risks from chlorination, the agency in 1994 proposed a rule that would require water systems to eliminate the process known as pre-disinfection. According to some officials, this unfunded mandate would cost local governments an additional $4 million a year and might force small water systems to abandon chlorination completely.