Is chlorine the next chemical battleground?

Hundreds of people in Havelock North are gradually returning to full health after coming down with gastroenteritis when their water supply was infected with campylobacter.

The bore water many of the townsfolk were drinking wasn’t treated with chlorine, which kills bugs and viruses and would have taken care of the campylobacter – avoiding this major public health crisis.

But, as with fluoridation of community water supplies, not all areas of the country put chlorine in their water supplies, with local councils making that call. Around 15 per cent of the nation’s drinking water supply isn’t chlorinated, according to the Ministry of Health. The key reason for that is those places have reliably good water quality and people don’t like the slight chemical taste of chlorinated water.

The Ministry of Health monitors the quality of drinking water supplies in the country and its most recent report suggests our drinking water is high quality.

During 2014/15, over 3 million New Zealanders on networked supplies serving over 100 people were provided with drinking-water that met all the bacterial, protozoal and chemical requirements of the Drinking-water Standards for New Zealand and, therefore, was demonstrably safe.

But try telling that to the people of Havelock North. Mistakes happen in the management of testing procedures. An inquiry will determine what happened in the Hawke’s Bay and how the water was contaminated.

Outbreak just a matter of time

But the fact remains, the whole issue could have been avoided with simple chlorination of the water supply, as water treatment engineer Iain Rabbitts has been very vocal in pointing out:

“The potential for contamination of one of our untreated water supplies was telegraphed in 2000 when an E.coli outbreak in Canada killed five people and made 2500 people sick. It was only a matter of time before it happened here and this time Havelock North drew the short straw. It’s pure luck it hasn’t happened before.”

Water New Zealand chief executive, John Pfahlert, says an inquiry should look at whether chlorination should be mandated for all water supplies.

“Many local authorities have very pure water sourced from underground aquifers and have weighed up the level of risk and found it to be acceptable.

“Sometimes council decisions not to chlorinate have been driven by public concern around the adding of chemicals to their water supply.”

“We also need to take a look at whether the Government should re-introduce the Drinking Water Subsidy Scheme for smaller local authorities to help them comply with the Drinking Water Standards.”

That seems sensible, but extending chlorination to places where it isn’t currently done will face vocal and well-coordinated opposition from activists opposed to any chemicals being added to the water supply. Some of them may come from the anti-fluoridation camp who not only oppose fluoridation as “forced medication” but claim it is toxic and dangerous to our health.

There’s no dedicated anti-chlorine lobby group in New Zealand, as far as I can see, but the “facts” about chlorine in the water are only a Google search away.

A familiar figure Dr Mercola, is out there on the web to give you the (mis)information on chlorine:

And considering the negative impact it is probably having on your family’s well-being, wouldn’t you want to know everything you can about this toxic cocktail in your water supply? Of course!

Is chlorine safe?

In very small amounts, chlorine is claimed to be safe and effective by public health authorities and its use worldwide has been credited with saving millions from waterborne disease. But there is some scientific literature that has raised questions about how it interacts with organic compounds, as Scientific American explains:

Opponents of chlorination point to studies linking repeated exposure to trace amounts of chlorine in water with higher incidences of bladder, rectal and breast cancers. The problem lies in chlorine’s ability to interact with organic compounds in fresh water to create trihalomethanes (THMs), which when ingested can encourage the growth of free radicals that can destroy or damage vital cells in the body. Besides cancer, exposure to THMs has been linked to other health issues including asthma, eczema, heart disease and higher miscarriage and birth defect rates.

The evidence base for elevated risk of certain health effects from drinking chlorinated water at recommended doses is weak, but coupled with the detectable taste of it, the relatable feeling of swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool or using cleaning agents that contain it,  there is likely to be a fierce fight to prevent chlorination in places where it currently isn’t.

One Comment

  1. Kevin Green

    Chlorine use to disinfect is so common in aquaculture, for example, as to be a non-entity. It’s usually neutralised with sodium thiosulphate and the water used to culture any organisms. The movement against chlorine and fluorine is akin to that against vaccines and based more on scientific ignorance and paranoia than anything reasonable.

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