NATO and USAID are promoting toxic chlorine water treatment systems and donating them to the people of Afghanistan without disclosing the health risks that result from ingesting chlorine. All that seems to matter to both organizations is that chlorine is cheap and easy to distribute. Chlorine, in addition to being a health hazard, is also less effective as a disinfectant than other available technologies. Afghanistan is getting the worst of both worlds: a treatment technology that is less than effective and one which has toxic side effects. It is important to note that although NATO and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul refuse to use chlorine to treat drinking water for their personnel in Afghanistan; toxic chlorine is somehow acceptable for Afghans to drink.
An increasing number of Americans drink bottled water due to the poor quality of their government-supplied chlorinated drinking water. Some wealthy Americans do not even trust American bottled water. They prefer imported water from Fiji, Iceland and the French Alps. The American Government wants to impose their dangerous, second-rate technology onto countries such as Afghanistan. The response of Afghans should be “no thanks.”
In a series of 2008 and 2009, press releases from the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team, Captain James Arnold (“family physician”) and Captain (Dr.) Bill Errico discussed how their sodium hypochlorite (i.e. chlorine bleach) water treatment systems are providing clean drinking water to the people of various districts within Zabul Province in Afghanistan. They claim that their chlorine systems destroy 99.9% of all bacteria. None of these claims are necessarily true and both physicians failed to mention the toxic side effects that result from adding chlorine to drinking water. This is part of a NATO and USAID effort across Afghanistan to promote the use of chlorine, without properly disclosing the negative health impacts associated with this chemical.
Chlorine gas was used by Germany during the First World War because it is a deadly nerve agent and poison. Even in diluted concentrations chlorine is corrosive, toxic and cancer causing.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) lists chlorine as an “acutely hazardous material.” See USAID/ANE press release of 2/12/08. Despite that USAID, since 2002, has been promoting and distributing liquid chlorine in Afghanistan under the label “Clorin,” without apparently explaining the risks and dangers of this product.
“Ingestion of chlorine dissolved in water will cause corrosive tissue damage of the gastrointestinal tract” New York State Department of Health: “the Facts about Chlorine.”
The Chlorine Institute reports that chlorine begins to cause health problems when present at 1 part per million (ppm) as it will form an acid within the eyes and lungs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard lists chlorine as a hazardous at 0.5 ppm.
Chlorine added to water results in free chlorine residue and it generates some equally dangerous byproducts which are both cancer-causing and mutagenic, i.e., can lead to birth defects. (see the Singer 1999, and Wigle 1998, studies). These disinfectant byproducts include:
1. Trihalomethanes - Which can cause liver, kidney and central nervous system problems;
2. Organochlorines - Which are toxic;
3. Bromates - Which can increase one’s risk of cancer;
4. Haloacetic Acid - Which can increase one’s risk of cancer; and
5. Alloxen - Which can attack and damage the pituitary gland.
For further information, see the report by the Government of Canada entitled:
“Long Term Exposure to Disinfection Byproducts in Drinking Water (and Possibly Short Term Exposures in Pregnancies) May Pose a Health Risk to the Population of Newfoundland and Labrador.” www.env.gov.nl.ca
See also the study entitled:
“Relationship of Trihalomethane Concentrations in Public Water Supplies to Stillbirth and Birth Weights in Three Water Regions of England” (Feb. 2005)
In addition to being dangerous, chlorine is not the most effective disinfectant. Ozone and ultraviolet light kill more bacteria and viruses than chlorine, and both can also kill protozoans. Finally, chlorine will not degrade pesticides; it will not remove nitrates (fertilizer); it will not remove lead, iron, arsenic, solvents or chemicals; it will not remove dirt, sand, debris, salt or radon. In short, it is not a magic pill for producing clean, potable water.
For chlorine to be effective (and to limit the generation of toxic byproducts), the pH of the source water needs to be kept under 7, the water temperature has to be regulated, the correct chlorine concentration measured and the “inactivation” time sufficient. In summary, the application of chlorine to drinking water is complex. The treated water has to be carefully monitored and repeatedly tested for levels of chlorine byproducts. One cannot simply give bottles of chlorine to people along with a few minutes of instructions. Thus, chlorine is not suitable for use in Afghanistan.
Americans understand the dangers of chlorine and as a result many American communities have begun to switch to a less toxic form of chlorine called Chloramine, but it has its own problems:
- It is not as strong an oxidant/disinfectant as chlorine
- It contains 3 parts chlorine to 1 part ammonia so there is an increase risk of nitrates byproducts being produced from the ammonia
- It is more expensive than chlorine; and
- It also introduces free chlorine residue into the water system
Afghanistan can avoid many of the negative health consequences of American chemicals and technologies by looking to the World Health Organization (WHO) for assistance. The WHO has pioneered alternatives to Western water treatment technologies. These alternatives include natural processes to clean water and natural additives, many of which can be locally obtained. WHO techniques can produce cleaner drinking water in Afghanistan than most Americans drink in the United States and can do so at a relatively low cost.
Contrary to NATO and American claims, producing clean and healthy drinking water is not something that can be solved by supplying “a single technology in a box.” No one generic treatment technology will work throughout Afghanistan. Water purification is part science and part art. The reason is there are no two sources of drinking water that are exactly alike. Different areas of the country will have water than contains different sediments, minerals and other contaminants, in differing concentrations. That means that one set of treatment process will not work in all cases. The technologies must be tailored to the specific requirements of the influent water.
The usual practice is to sample the river, stream, lake or groundwater over several days, preferably at different times of the day. Those samples are sent to a laboratory for analysis in order to determine the composition of the particular water source. This will enable an expert to determine what materials have to be removed or in some cases added in order to produce the healthiest drinking water.
In general, to produce “clean” water one must remove:
1. Excess particulates, including sand, soil and debris;
2. Chemicals and pesticides;
3. Excess metals such as iron, lead and arsenic;
4. Nitrates (fertilizer residue) and phosphates (soap residue);
5. Fecal matter, bacteria, cysts, protozoa;
The solution is to assemble a series of treatment techniques that can be plugged into each other (as needed) in order to add additional layers of treatment. As much as possible these techniques should use local materials. For example, source water in Kabul may require the use of all the techniques (1-8), while cleaner water in Kandahar may require only technologies 1,2, 3 and 6.
Part 2 of this series will examine the range of available WHO low-technology processes that can supply every Afghan citizen with clean and healthy drinking water.