Everyone has felt the sting of pool water in the eyes. We can thank chlorine for that. This chemical, which is most often used for cleaning and disinfecting, can cause serious side effects with too much exposure. But did you know our bodies actually need some chlorine to function properly?
Our biology is dependent on elements.
Swedish pharmacist Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered chlorine in 1774 when he dropped hydrochloric acid onto a piece of manganese dioxide. The reaction of the two chemicals released a yellow–green gas, which we now known as chlorine. Scientists didn’t know it then, but up until Scheele’s gaff, chlorine was actually an undiscovered element. (They figured that out decades later.) Today, we know chlorine has a big impact on our biology and health. Our bodies require numerous chemicals and minerals to function. Minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium are widely recognized as essential to human health and are intentionally incorporated in most modern diets. But did you know your body also needs certain chemical elements to function—and chlorine is one of them? You can find chloride, the stable, ionic form of chlorine, inside cells and extracellular fluid as sodium chloride. According to the American Chemistry Council, the body’s cells exist in a sea of fluid. Most of this is water plus charged atoms (ions) of sodium and chloride. Chloride plays one of the body’s most delicate balancing acts: ensuring electrical neutrality and the correct pressure of the body’s fluids, while also maintaining the body’s acid–base balance. Eating table salt (otherwise known as sodium chloride) is the most common way we maintain the chloride levels our bodies need. Without sodium chloride, our bodies would dry out, our muscles wouldn’t be able to move, and our meals would be considerably less tasty.
Chlorine is not messing around.
Chlorine is such an effective disinfectant because of its ability to bond with and destroy the outer surfaces of bacteria and viruses. Places like hospitals, restaurants, hotels, public pools, and food processing plants use chlorine to kill harmful levels of Salmonella and E. coli. Chlorine is also used to disinfect tap water and to sanitize sewage and industrial waste. Don’t worry, the amount of chlorine added to our drinking water is minimal and exposure to it doesn’t threaten human health.
Exposure can be dangerous, but chlorine remains useful.
Too much chlorine exposure is unsafe. The inhalation of chlorine gas is most harmful to the body and can lead to serious health issues. Throat irritation, wheezing, cough, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing are symptoms of exposure to chlorine gas. Chlorine exposure symptoms usually appear within minutes, and it’s important to act quickly if you experience them. If you’re inside and believe you’ve been exposed, get outside or to a well-ventilated area immediately. Remove contaminated clothing, take out and throw away contact lenses, wash your eyes and skin, and seek medical attention. Prolonged or extensive skin exposure to chlorine can also lead to problems. People who swim frequently often experience these issues. Chlorine removes the natural oils from your body’s skin and hair, leaving your body feeling dried out and your hair brittle. You should always take a shower right after swimming to remove any lingering chlorine. Moisturizing well will also help replace the oils stripped from your skin during your swim.
Chlorine makes it work.
Chlorine also plays an important role in product manufacturing. The element is prolific in home construction products and items essential to the automobile and electronics industries. Recreation merchandise like sports balls and tents also contain chlorine. We use chlorine all over the place in our daily lives. Scheele never could have guessed that the green gas rising from his work table would become so important.