Will the U.S. Repeat Peru's Deadly Chlorine Folly?

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Chlorine

(Fort Lauderdale, Florida) You may have heard the term "red death." It dates back to the middle ages, which is where most North Americans probably imagine it. But it has a modern name: cholera. And if you live in Peru or any of 14 other South American countries, it’s very real and right now — thanks in part to bad advice from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Enrique Ghersi’s voice shook with emotion as he described the situation to a gathering here of Latin American, British, and U.S. policymakers at the Atlas Foundation Workshop on Science, Technology and the Environment in Fort Lauderdale. Ten thousand Latin Americans have died, according to the Pan American Health Organization, and more than a million made sick.

Ghersi blames "U.S. imperialism." But this imperialism didn’t come at the point of a bayonet as it has so many times in the past. Rather it came from EPA pronouncements regarding the chlorination of drinking water.

Chlorine is the most effective killer of bacteria, including that which causes cholera, in water supplies. While other techniques such as ozonation or using ultra-violet light can kill bacteria at the point of contact, chlorine added to water keeps on killing all the way to the faucet. New contaminants after the water leaves the treatment facility are still eliminated. 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 have lately has been under an all-out assault by American environmentalists, who accuse them of everything from thinning the ozone layer to causing cancer to reducing sperm counts to shrinking alligators’ penises. (Question: How do you measure an alligator’s penis? Answer: Very carefully.) Greenpeace International, using the pithy if not overly imaginative slogan "Chlorine kills!" (meaning people, not germs), has demanded the elimination of all man-made chlorines in use.

This while leaving alone those which occur naturally, such as sodium chloride, better known as table salt. Such a drastic move, according to the consulting firm Charles River Associates, would cost the economy $91 billion a year. Other critics say it would cost many American lives, pointing to Peru as an example.

What happened in Peru is that their government took the environmentalists and the EPA more seriously than ours has so far. The EPA has to a great extent bought into the environmentalist anti-chlorinated chemical rhetoric, with Administrator Carol Browner calling for reducing, if not eliminating, use of chlorines. The EPA has also made much of the fact that some studies have shown a slightly increased risk of cancer from drinking chlorinated water.

We Norte-Americanos, who have become somewhat resistant to the "everything man-made causes cancer" cries of the environmentalists and the EPA, have taken thus far a sane attitude towards this. Berkeley biologist Bruce Ames has noted that if there is any risk of cancer from chlorinated water at all, it is a thirtieth that of a serving of peanut butter. But Peruvian bureaucrats bought the rhetoric wholesale and greatly reduced the chlorine pumped into the country’s water supply.

This set the stage for horror when, Pan American Health Organization officials suspect, a Chinese freighter released its cholera-contaminated bilge water into the harbor in Lima. Eventually the bacteria made its way into open wells which hadn’t been chlorinated at all and in 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 considerably better than the poor. Peru’s rich can afford private water supplies and bottled water. It is the poor, says Ghersi, who "have been sacrificed for the EPA and the environmentalists." Undaunted by all this, the EPA is now taking action that may well endanger much of the U.S. water supply.

Citing the hypothetical cancer risks from chlorination, the agency in 1994 proposed a rule that would require water systems across the country to eliminate the process known as pre-disinfection as a means of controlling "disinfection by-products." 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.

The proposed water regulation has some health officials absolutely boiling. "Reducing chlorine levels in public water systems poses an immediate and significant threat to public health," says Douglas Kinard of the South Carolina Department of Public Health. "A conscientious health professional with experience in waterborne disease outbreaks should not support a rule which compromises public health."

Or, as Robert Forbes of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services put it, "the reduction or elimination of chlorination of drinking water to reduce the risk of . . . disease, is analogous to reducing or eliminating air travel to protect people on the ground from being hit by falling aircraft parts!"

Enrique Ghersi hopes that won’t happen here as it has in his homeland. "We’re ahead of the U.S.," Ghersi told me sarcastically. "And have returned to the Middle Ages as a result."