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How does chlorine added to drinking water kill bacteria and other harmful organisms? Why doesn't it harm us? - Scientific American

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How does chlorine added to drinking

water kill bacteria and other harmful
organisms? Why doesn't it harm us?
May 4, 1998

Jon J. Calomiris, Water Research Program Manager at the United States Air Force
Research Laboratory, and Keith A. Christman, Director, Disinfection and Government
Relations at the Chlorine Chemistry Council, collaborated on this answer.
While quenching your thirst with a glass of tap water, enjoying your morning shower


or swimming in a pool, you most likely are, at one time or another, aware of the
chlorine used to disinfect your municipal water. Although its distinctive aroma may be
unpleasant to some, it is an indication that your water supply is being adequately
treated to stave off harmful or deadly microorganisms.
Chlorine effectively kills a large variety of microbial waterborne pathogens, including
those that can cause typhoid fever, dysentery, cholera and Legionnaires' disease.
Chlorine is widely credited with virtually eliminating outbreaks of waterborne disease
in the United States and other developed countries. And Life magazine recently cited
the filtration of drinking water and use of chlorine as "probably the most significant
public health advance of the millennium."

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Health officials began treating

drinking water with chlorine
in 1908. Previously, typhoid
fever had killed about 25 out

Image: Chlorine Chemistry Council

TYPHOID FEVER has been virtually eliminated through the
chlorination of water.

of 100,000 people in the U.S.

annually, a death rate close to
that now associated with
automobile accidents. Today,
typhoid fever has been
virtually eliminated.

Chlorine is currently
employed by over 98 percent of all U.S. water utilities that disinfect drinking water. It
has proved to be a powerful barrier in restricting pathogens from reaching your faucet
and making you ill. Chlorine and chlorine-based compounds are the only disinfectants
that can efficiently kill microorganisms during water treatment, and maintain the

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How does chlorine added to drinking water kill bacteria and other harmful organisms? Why doesn't it harm us? - Scientific American

quality of the water as it flows from the treatment plant to the consumer's tap.
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Although chlorine's value has been known for nearly a century, the mechanism by
which the compound kills or inactivates microorganisms is not clearly understood. The

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bulk of chlorine disinfection research, conducted from the 1940s to the 1970s, focused
on bacteria. Though limited, this work gave rise to some speculation. Researchers
postulated that chlorine, which exists in water as hypochlorite and hypochlorous acid,
reacts with biomolecules in the bacterial cell to destroy the organism.

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Further work led to the so-called "multiple hit" theory of chlorine inactivation. It
asserted that bacterial death probably results from chlorine attacking a variety of
bacterial molecules or targets, including enzymes, nucleic acids and membrane lipids.
Early research efforts focused on how chlorine attacks enzymes. The disinfectant was
able to inactivate extracts of various enzymes because it is highly reactive with sulfurcontaining and aromatic amino acids. But it had no effect on cytoplasmic enzymes,
suggesting that it might not reach biomolecules within the bacterium. Thus,
researchers redirected their attention to the molecules on the surface of the bacterial

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A new hypothesis proclaimed that perhaps chlorine acted by attacking the bacterial
cell wall. Proponents of this idea suggested that chlorine exposure might destroy the
cell wall--by altering it physically, chemically and biochemically--and so terminate the
cell's vital functions, killing the microorganism.
A possible sequence of events during chlorination would be:

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disruption of the cell wall barrier by reactions of chlorine with target sites on the cell surface
release of vital cellular constituents from the cell
termination of membrane-associated functions
termination of cellular functions within the cell.
During the course of these events, the microorganism dies, meaning it is no longer


capable of growing or causing disease.

Although chlorine's disruption of the cell wall appears to
be the fundamental event leading to the demise of the
bacterium, the mechanism by which chlorine disrupts the
cell wall had not been determined. Recently, though,

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scientists have studied how chlorine affects the cell walls

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of "gram-negative" bacteria, organisms including those

causing typhoid fever, dysentery, cholera and

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E. COLI. are commonly found

in contaminated water. They are By definition, gram-negative bacteria possess cell walls
destroyed by chlorination.
that consist of an outer membrane and a cytoplasmic

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membrane. The outer membrane, being the outermost

region that has direct contact with the organism's environment, functions as a
protective barrier. The investigation revealed that, for each bacterial species,
chlorination significantly increased the permeability of the outer membrane, leaving
the bacterium vulnerable to destruction.

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How chlorine inactivates other types of bacteria has not been determined. Scientists do
not understand much about spore-forming bacteria or gram-positive bacteria, which

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How does chlorine added to drinking water kill bacteria and other harmful organisms? Why doesn't it harm us? - Scientific American

have no outer membrane. Although these bacterial types are, in general, more chlorine
tolerant than gram-negative bacteria, most waterborne species do not normally pose a
health threat.

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Certain waterborne viruses, such as enteric viruses and hepatitis A, may be even more
tolerant to chlorine disinfection than some bacterial species. But the means by which
chlorine inactivates viruses is not well understood.
In recent years, the parasitic protozoans Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia
lamblia have emerged as formidable waterborne pathogens. These protozoa are
remarkably resistant to chlorine disinfection and consequently, present a great
challenge to the water industry and health officials, who are responsible for providing
safe drinking water to the public. Currently, filtration is the most effective process for
removing these protozoa from drinking water. To fully protect the public, however,

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effective disinfection methods must be developed.


If chlorine kills so many species of microorganisms, why doesn't it harm humans?

Fortunately, when we ingest chlorinated drinking water, food in our stomachs and the
materials normally present in the intestinal tract quickly neutralize the chlorine. So
chlorine concentrations along cell membranes in the gastrointestinal tract are probably
too low to cause injury.
This example may simply be another case of "dose makes the poison." Like medicine, a
little bit of chlorine, such as the levels used in drinking water or swimming pools, kills
relatively simple, but potentially deadly, microorganisms. At much higher
concentrations, chlorine could damage the cells in our body.
X so that they effectively kill diseaseWater utilities carefully regulate chlorine levels


causing microorganisms but

not harm
people. The Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA), with the helpto
of our
utilities, environmentalists and chlorine
manufacturers, recently proposed a regulation that would reduce the chlorine

concentrations in drinking water

assure that the disinfectant does not approach
unsafe levels.
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Some additional details are provided by Leslie E. Dorworth of the IllinoisIndiana Sea Grant College Program.

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Water has been treated for many centuries. First, it was boiled and filtered to improve
the taste and appearance. Chlorine, one of 90 naturally occurring elements, was first


used as a disinfectant in Europe and North America in the early part of this century.
Since then, widespread epidemics of the most severe forms of diseases have become

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exceedingly rare in the U.S.

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In the U.S., Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. The law was

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amended in 1986 to expand the EPA's role in protecting public health from
contaminated drinking water. The amendments require the agency to control specific
disease-causing organisms and indicators that may be present in drinking water and to
require public water suppliers to disinfect water. Amendments enacted in 1996 make
it clear that any federal agency is subject to penalties for past violations of the Act.
Chlorine can combine with natural organic compounds in raw water to create some
undesirable by-products; on its own, however, it does not usually pose a problem to



How does chlorine added to drinking water kill bacteria and other harmful organisms? Why doesn't it harm us? - Scientific American

public health. The legislation regulates the by-products. One concern with chlorinated
water is its tendency to form trihalomethanes (THMs), carcinogenic by-products of
the disinfection process. In 1979, the EPA adopted the THM regulation, limiting their
allowable level in drinking water supplies. In 1992, the EPA established federally
enforceable standards that now cover 83 contaminants, including THMs, that may be
found in drinking water.
In order to address the EPA regulations--in this case THMs specifically--water
treatment plants changed operations to minimize THM production without
compromising public health. Some of the methods used include reducing the amount of
chlorine; changing the timing during disinfection so that chlorine is added in either
sooner or later during process; changing the type of chlorine used; and removing the
organic material that reacts with the chlorine to produce THMs.
Although chlorine is not the only disinfecting agent available to the water supply
industry, it is the most widely used disinfectant in North America. Another form of
disinfection is ozonation. Both chlorination and ozonation kill organisms by oxidation.
Ultraviolet treatment, another method, uses UV radiation to kill microorganisms.
For chlorine to be effective against microorganisms, it must be present in a sufficient
quantity, and it must have a sufficient amount of time to react. This reaction time is
called the contact time. For most water systems, the best contact time is usually 30
minutes. To ensure continued protection against harmful organisms, a certain amount
of chlorine must remain in the water after treatment. The remaining chlorine is known
as a residual chlorine. It is this tiny amount that you sometimes smell in your tap
Most of us never think about getting sick or even dying from drinking water. But in
many developing countries around the world, diseases associated with dirty water kill
more than 5 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization.
Without proper disinfection procedures, outbreaks in the U.S. would significantly
As researchers and officials have learned more about water disinfection, the use of
chlorine in treatment plants has been reduced. This reduction has been balanced by
providing microbial protection and reducing the by-products created through the
treatment process.
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