Chlorine Is a Highly Useful Chemical That’s Also Extremely Dangerous − Here’s What to Know About Staying Safe Around It

Large-Scale Releases Worldwide
Some recent accidents show how commonly the release or mishandling of chlorine can create life-threatening situations. For example, on April 27, 2023, five workers at a spa in Brooklyn were hospitalized after employees mixed two cleaning chemicals, releasing chlorine gas – a reaction that is surprisingly easy to generate.

In a larger event, on April 18, 2022, a compressor fire caused a chlorine gas spill inside a Dow Chemicals facility close to Plaquemine, Louisiana. Liquid chlorine quickly vaporized into the air and spread into adjoining neighborhoods. At least 23 people were hospitalized.

Large-scale shipments of chlorine can cause widespread injuries and even deaths in the event of accidents. For example, when a freight train derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina, in 2005, a tanker car ruptured and released 60 tons of chlorine. Nine people died, 72 were hospitalized and 525 received outpatient medical treatment.

The most dramatic recent case occurred at the Port of Aqaba in Jordan on June 27, 2022. A crane dropped a container loaded with 25 tons of chlorine onto a docked ship, where it broke and produced a massive release of toxic gas. The spill killed 13 people and injured more than 260.

Protecting People from Chlorine Gas Exposure
Although the risks from chlorine gas exposure have been well understood for over a century, there are no current antidotes. This is because chlorine is a strong oxidizing agent that can cause major tissue damage in the body.

People who handle chlorine in the workplace should use respiratory equipment that meets federal regulatory standards. They also should have rubber gloves, a protective apron or other protective clothing, goggles or a face mask, and access to a shower and eye-washing station.

Signs that chlorine may be present include a pungent, irritating odor, like very strong cleaning products; a yellowish-green gas; and irritation to the eyes and throat. If you suspect that you may have been exposed to chlorine gas, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend moving away from the area and removing all clothing and showering if possible.

Symptoms of chlorine exposure can be treated in a hospital. Therapies include providing patients with humidified oxygen, which is less irritating to the nose and throat than conventional oxygen, and inhaled beta-adrenergic agents – medications that are widely used to manage bronchial asthma by relieving lung spasms and reducing airway resistance.

Researchers are studying other medications that may help reduce the severity of lung injury and help patients recover lung function. These include inhalable therapies that reduce lung damage following chlorine gas exposure and oral tablets or injectable therapies that reduce lung inflammation.

Chlorine is a safe and effective disinfectant when handled appropriately. But as with other household chemicals, it is very important to understand its risks, read labels before using it, store it in its original container in a secure place and dispose of it safely.

Aliasger K. Salem is Associate Vice President for Research and Bighley Chair and Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Iowa. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.