No More Chlorine Gas?

The wastewater plant in San Jose, California is the latest in a long line of water and wastewater facilities that are abandoning chlorine gas for other forms of this life-saving disinfectant.  Chlorination of drinking water has saved millions of lives around the world, and has virtually eradicated cholera, typhoid and dysentery in the United States.  It truly is a life-saving chemical — and it has been serving this function since the early 1900’s.

However, at about the same time, chlorine was used as a weapon of mass destruction!  (See today’s photo from World War I — Happy Veterans’ Day, by the way!)  So the people at San Jose — and all through the water and wastewater industry — have known of the “two-edged sword” of chlorine for the past century.  The benefits have always outweighed the risks, until just recently.  For San Jose’s story, see:

http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_19300471

As this article points out, both the chlorine industry and the water/wastewater industry have an excellent track record with safe handling of chlorine gas.  But with far safer and equally viable alternatives, one has to wonder what is taking our industry so long to move away from chlorine gas.

I was involved in an analysis of alternatives for my own water agency just a few years ago.  The highly-respected engineering firm that provided the analysis concluded that chlorine gas was the best alternative.  I disagreed, as did my entire staff of Operators and maintenance personnel that had to live with the risks every single day.  As is usual in such circumstances, management sided with the consulting engineers over its own staff.

Management was particularly swayed by the conclusion of the analysis that chlorine gas would be far less expensive than the alternatives.  One of my main points of contention is: what is the cost of even one single life lost in dealing with a chlorine gas escape?  That may be difficult to quantify in an engineering analysis, but I’m sure the attorneys filing wrongful death lawsuits would be able to come up with a number!

If we have safe and effective alternatives, why do we continue to accept the incredible risk of storing a weapon of mass destruction in the middle of our communities?

I would like to hear an opinion from a veteran of World War I.

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