The sweet smell of chlorine



The advent of agriculture allowed people to settle down in permanent populations where humans were previously migratory. This permanency had a massive effect on human health, enabling diseases to evolve and to quickly and easily spread through large numbers of people. Without scientific knowledge, waterborne illnesses became increasingly common, eventually reaching epidemic proportions.


Then, in the mid 1800s, the world’s first epidemiologists came along. One of these was a doctor called John Snow. Doctor Snow observed that incidences of cholera in London were centred around a water pump in Broad Street. He hypothesised that cholera was being spread through the population not as an airborne illness, but rather a waterborne disease. The handle of the Broad Street water pump was removed and the incidences of cholera began their decline. 


Today, the reality of waterborne illness is something of which we are highly aware but largely associate with developing countries. Most people do not realise how incredible the invention of water sanitation has been in saving and improving our lives every single day. Indeed, when I point out how I loathe the production of drinking water in plastic bottles to be sold in small quantities for prices higher than fossil fuels, most people state that they only do this because they hate the taste of chlorine. Sometimes, people state that they only drink it because chlorine and/or its by-products cause cancer.


Some of the side effects of chlorine that people worry about might be true. Although extensive research indicates that the chlorine dosed water provided in our towns and cities is safe, chlorine reacts with all sorts of substances dissolved in water and some of these reactions can produce by-products which may be harmful in the long-term. Does this mean we should be clamouring for change, that we could be potentially drinking harmful substances while the government does nothing? 


There are things scientists and engineers are almost certain are harmful to the human population: obesity, climate change, sedentary lifestyles, over consumption and overpopulation. These are the elephants in the room which few people worry about on a day-to-day basis, but for which there is a large body of conclusive evidence pointing at disaster. 


It’s important that research in other fields, such as the potential impact of chlorine by-products, continues. There are critical things the scientific community already understands to be affecting human health, however, which can and should be addressed now. The by-products of chlorine have the potential to be impacting human health but chlorine also means that Australians can enjoy a life expectancy of 80 years rather than the 160 infants dying per 1000 born in England in the mid 1800s, and in Nigeria today.


Personally, I love the taste of chlorine. The taste of chlorine reminds me that I can live in a populated environment; plan my week without worrying about the worst effects of typhoid or some other hideous and dangerous waterborne illness. 

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Canberra, Australia

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Page last updated 1 July 2020

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