Dear EarthTalk: I am very concerned about the amount of chlorine in my tap water. I called my water company and they said it is safe just let the tap run for awhile to rid the smell of the chlorine. But that just gets rid of the smell, perhaps, not the chlorine?
—Anita Frigo, Milford, CT
Thousands of American municipalities add chlorine to their drinking water to get rid of microbes. But this inexpensive and highly effective disinfectant has a dark side. "Chlorine, added as an inexpensive and effective drinking water disinfectant, is also a known poison to the body," says Vanessa Lausch of filter manufacturer Aquasana. "It is certainly no coincidence that chlorine gas was used with deadly effectiveness as a weapon in the First World War." The gas would severely burn the lungs and other body tissues when inhaled, and is no less powerful when ingested by mouth.
Lausch adds that researchers have now linked chlorine in drinking water to higher incidences of bladder, rectal and breast cancers. Reportedly chlorine, once in water, interacts with organic compounds to create trihalomethanes (THMs)—which when ingested encourage the growth of free radicals that can destroy or damage vital cells in the body. "Because so much of the water we drink ends up in the bladder and/or rectum, ingestions of THMs in drinking water are particularly damaging to these organs," says Lausch.
The link between chlorine and bladder and rectal cancers has long been known, but only recently have researchers found a link between common chlorine disinfectant and breast cancer, which affects one out of every eight American women. A recent study conducted in Hartford, Connecticut found that women with breast cancer have 50-60 percent higher levels of organochlorines (chlorine by-products) in their breast tissue than cancer-free women.
But don’t think that buying bottled water is any solution. Much of the bottled water for sale in the U.S. comes from public municipal water sources that are often treated with, you guessed it, chlorine. A few cities have switched over to other means of disinfecting their water supplies. Las Vegas, for example, has followed the lead of many European and Canadian cities in switching over to harmless ozone instead of chlorine to disinfect its municipal water supply.
As for getting rid of the chlorine that your city or town adds to its drinking water on your own, theories abound. Some swear by the method of letting their water sit for 24 hours so that the chlorine in the glass or pitcher will off-gas. Letting the tap run for a while is not likely to remove any sizable portion of chlorine, unless one were to then let the water sit overnight before consuming it. Another option is a product called WaterYouWant, which looks like sugar but actually is composed of tasteless antioxidants and plant extracts. The manufacturer claims that a quick shake of the stuff removes 100 percent of the chlorine (and its odor) from a glass a tap water. A year"s supply of WaterYouWant retails for under $30.
Of course, an easier way to get rid of chlorine from your tap water is by installing a carbon-based filter, which absorbs chlorine and other contaminants before they get into your glass or body. Tap-based filters from the likes of Paragon, Aquasana, Kenmore, Seagul and others remove most if not all of the chlorine in tap water, and are relatively inexpensive to boot.
Dear EarthTalk: I"ve read that human breast milk contains toxins from pollution and other causes. How serious is this and what affect will it have on my baby?
—Skylar S., New York, NY
Researchers have found that those of us living in developed countries—men, women and children alike—carry around quite a toxic burden in our bodies from the constant exposure to various chemicals in our urban, suburban and even rural environments. If this weren"t alarming enough, the fact that these chemicals end up in breast milk and are in turn passed along to newborns is even more troubling.
According to writer Florence Williams, whose groundbreaking 2005 article in the New York Times Magazine opened many women"s eyes to the environmental health issues with breastfeeding, breast milk tends to attract heavy metals and other contaminants due to its high-fat and protein content. "When we nurse our babies, we feed them not only the fats, sugars and proteins that fire their immune systems, metabolisms and cerebral synapses," she reports. "We also feed them, albeit in minuscule amounts, paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants."
In the wake of such kinds of news reports, four nursing mothers came together in 2005 to form Make Our Milk Safe (MOMS), a nonprofit engaging in education, advocacy and corporate campaigns to try to eliminate toxic chemicals from the environment and in breast milk. The group educates pregnant women and others about the impacts on children of exposure to chemicals before, during and after pregnancy, and promotes safer alternatives to products such as cleaning supplies, food storage containers and personal care products that contain offending substances.
"Along with its antibodies, enzymes and general goodness, breast milk also contains dozens of compounds that have been linked to negative health effects," reports MOMS, which lists Bisphenol-A (BPA, a plastic component), PBDEs (used in flame retardants), perchlorate (used in rocket fuel), perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs, used in floor cleaners and non-stick pans), phthalates (used in plastics), polyvinyl chloride (PVC, commonly known as vinyl) and the heavy metals cadmium, lead and mercury as leading offenders.
Despite these concerns, some recent research has shown the toxic load in breast milk to be smaller than that in the air most city dwellers breathe inside their homes. Researchers from Ohio State and Johns Hopkins universities measured levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in breast milk and in the air inside the homes of three lactating Baltimore mothers, finding that a nursing infant"s chemical exposure from airborne pollutants to be between 25 and 135 times higher than from drinking mother"s milk.
"We ought to focus our efforts on reducing the indoor air sources of these compounds," said Johns Hopkins" Sungroul Kim, the study"s lead author. He concurs with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many other public health experts that, despite breast milk"s vulnerability to chemical contamination, the benefits of breast feeding—from the nutrition and important enzymes and antibodies it supplies to the mother/child bonding it provides—far outweigh the risks.
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