A simple turn of the faucet, and there it is—abundant fresh, clean water. It can quench your thirst, help cook your food, or provide welcome relief in a hot tub at the end of a hard day…but it is not available to all.

An Essential Commodity

Life on Earth is water-based. Our lives depend on this liquid, which is purified at treatment plants and delivered to millions of homes through vast networks of underground pipes. Yet, access to clean water is an unattained luxury for many on this planet.

According to a 2006 report on the global water crisis by the United Nations Development Programme, some 1.1 billion people in developing countries do not have access to “a minimal amount of clean water,” and 2.6 billion people—half the developing world’s population—lack basic sanitation.

Obtaining water is a high priority for many poor, rural families in developing countries. This task consumes large quantities of time and energy that could otherwise be spent working or going to school. In many areas, it is common for women and young girls to collect water for their families, frequently from filthy streams, lakes and other unhealthful sources.

Fortunately, chlorine chemistry is helping to address the need for safer water with “do-it-yourself” household drinking water disinfection and safer storage systems. These systems are reducing the risk of illness and death in communities that lack access to safe water supplies.

Addressing Drinking Water Risks in the Developing World

Locating and hauling water is hard work, but drinking water that has not been disinfected is downright dangerous. Natural waters, especially surface waters, are populated with a tremendous variety of microorganisms. Ingesting these can make people very sick. Because there are no systems in place to collect and remove wastewater in many developing communities, local waters may be polluted with human and animal waste—a recipe for disaster for consumers.

To counteract the ravages of waterborne illness in developing nations, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pan American Health Organization developed what is referred to as the Safe Water System. This point-of-use water treatment approach is meant to provide the health benefits of safer water to families until large municipal drinking water systems can be built. Families literally treat and store several days of sanitary water in their homes.

Many groups are cooperating to package and distribute water purification chemicals in inexpensive, easy-to-use household Safe Water Systems to those in need. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Safe Water Systems have been implemented in 19 countries on five continents. Chlorine disinfectants used in these systems are calcium hypochlorite (Ca(OCl)2), sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl) or chlorinated isocyanurates.

Promising Field Tests

The most common health effect of drinking unpurified water is diarrhea. Children are most at risk. Without access to either clean water or good healthcare, several thousand children die every day from diarrhea resulting from drinking unsanitary water. Many more fall sick.

Scientists have “gone into the field” to evaluate the public health effectiveness of portable water disinfection systems. Studies in Guatemala, Pakistan and Kenya demonstrate that families who use the Safe Water System suffer only about half the number of cases of diarrhea experienced by families who drink untreated water. These kits cost pennies to make and can purify enough water to sustain the typical household for a few days.

An Essential Humanitarian Service

Before the introduction of chlorine disinfectants to U.S. municipal water supplies, starting in 1908, waterborne illnesses such as cholera, typhoid fever and hepatitis A took a heavy toll in illness and death. One of today’s public health challenges is to make clean water available to all.

While safe water piped to every home is the ultimate solution to the developing world’s lack of access to clean water, Safe Water Systems can help avoid the tragedies of waterborne disease until community systems are built. That’s chlorine chemistry turned into an essential humanitarian service.

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