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Chlorine Chemistry: Essential to Safer Water for 100 Years, and Running

On a mild, early fall day in September, 1908, a water treatment operator at New Jersey’s Boonton Reservoir performed a task that would become routine for the next 100 years. He added a chlorine disinfectant to the Jersey City water supply to destroy waterborne germs. It was the first time chlorine chemistry would be used to disinfect the drinking water of an American city. A public health revolution was about to begin.

By the 1920s, most U.S. city dwellers were drawing chlorinated water from their taps, and rates of waterborne diseases, such as typhoid fever and cholera, were plummeting. It is no wonder that 100 years after its first use in Jersey City, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls drinking water chlorination one of the most significant public health advances in U.S. history.

Smart Chemistry in Action

Drinking water chlorination represents a smart use of chemistry in our everyday lives. Small amounts of chlorine disinfectants added to comparatively huge volumes of water help destroy germs, including bacteria and viruses that once killed thousands of people every year. Historians include Alexander the Great, ruler of most of the known world 1,000 years ago, and Willie Lincoln, the beloved 11-year old son of President Abraham Lincoln, among the millions of victims of waterborne diseases.

According to the American Water Works Association, 98 percent of modern U.S. water treatment facilities use chlorine disinfectants to disinfect drinking water.  Chlorine disinfectants are enormously popular not only because they destroy most waterborne germs, but because they are the only disinfectants that provide protection from recontamination as water flows from the treatment plant to consumers’ taps. That is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that all water systems that treat drinking water maintain a residual level of chlorine throughout their water distribution systems.

Click Here to View a Chart on U.S. Typhoid Fever Rates (1920-1960)

Chlorine Disinfection Chemistry

Chlorine can be added to drinking water in any one of three states of matter: solid, liquid or gas. “Chloride of lime,” a solid called calcium hypochlorite, was the first chlorine disinfectant used to treat Jersey City drinking water. Sodium hypochlorite, the active ingredient in chlorine bleach, is a liquid and elemental chlorine is a gas. When each of these substances is added to water, a great germ-buster, known as “free chlorine,” is released.

A Century of Safer Lives

One hundred years ago, on September 26, 1908, the residents of Jersey City became the first Americans to reap the health benefits of drinking water chlorination. City records show typhoid fever rates declined by over 92 percent between 1906 and 1926; similar triumphs are documented in cities across the country. So successful has the drinking water chlorination revolution been that most of us take clean tap water for granted today. Yet, we don’t have to travel very far back in time to note that clean water was more the exception than the rule throughout most of human history. So, this September 26, enjoy a glass of H2O in honor of drinking water chlorination—a public health revolution that has made our lives safer for 100 years…and running.

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