Chlorine has many important uses, including working as a household disinfectant and ensuring that drinking water and pool water is safe. However, this powerful chemical can also be toxic to humans, so it’s important to handle it very carefully. Find out more about how chlorine poisoning can occur and how to prevent it.
What Is Chlorine Poisoning?
Chlorine is often used in household cleaning products and to disinfect water for drinking or in swimming pools. The reason is because this chemical can actually kill bacteria and prevent it from growing. Unfortunately, chlorine poisoning is a risk to those who use or are near significant amounts of chlorine. The poisoning occurs when chlorine reacts with water in or out of the body to form hydrochloric acid and hypochlorous acid, both of which are very toxic.
(To learn more about the possible effects of chlorine in swimming pools, see Health Effects Of Chlorine In Swimming Pools.)
Chlorine poisoning occurs when someone gets chlorine in their system. This can happen in one of two ways:
- Inhaling: Breathing in chlorine vapors in the air can cause chlorine poisoning. This can happen when mixing chlorine-containing products with other cleaning products (such as mixing bleach and ammonia) or when someone is in an area that has lots of chlorine vapors in the air (such as an indoor pool where too much chlorine is being added to the water).
- Swallowing: People can also get chlorine poisoning by swallowing chlorine or a product or liquid which contains chlorine. This can occur in swimming pools, when using household cleaning products or when children accidentally consume a chlorine product.
Symptoms To Watch For
The symptoms of chlorine exposure usually vary depending on how the person was exposed to the chemical. Those who breathed in vapors containing chlorine may experience the following symptoms:
- Throat swelling
- Throat pain or irritation
- Breathing difficulty
- Water filling the lungs
- Pain or burning in the nose, lips or tongue
- Low blood pressure
- Changes in pH balance in the blood
When a person swallowing chlorine or a product or liquid containing chlorine, they may experience the following symptoms:
- Vomiting (sometimes blood)
- Abdominal pain
- Burning in the throat or esophagus
- Blood in the stool
In severe cases, loss of consciousness, loss of alertness, convulsions and other serious side effects may develop.
Although it may not result in chlorine poisoning, it’s important to be aware that contact with chlorine on the skin or in the eyes can also have serious side effects, including loss of vision or chemical burns.
Chlorine poisoning is extremely dangerous and must be treated immediately. Call for medical help right away and contact poison control for help in treating your symptoms until you are able to get to a doctor.
Unless otherwise instructed by a health professional or a representative from poison control, use the following techniques to treat chlorine poisoning right away:
- If chlorine is swallowed: Don’t make yourself throw up. Instead, drink water or milk. Those who are having trouble swallowing due to vomiting, convulsions, etc. should not receive anything to drink.
- If chlorine is inhaled: Get to an area with fresh air immediately. Sit down to prevent injury if you should become weak, start having convulsions, etc.
- If chlorine comes into contact with the skin or eyes: Flush the chlorine off the body or out of the eyes with clean water. Continue for at least 15 minutes, even if the symptoms initially subside.
Keep in mind that these are just techniques to help with immediate treatment. Any person who has chlorine poisoning should get to a doctor or emergency medical center as soon as possible.
Long-Term Health Risks
There are some serious health risks associated with long-term exposure to low levels of chlorine. This is mostly an issue for those who are regularly exposed to chlorine, such as those who are avid swimmers or work in certain positions, such as lifeguards or cleaning professionals. These people may not experience the severe symptoms of chlorine poisoning, but they may still be subject to serious health risks by having continuous exposure to the chemical.
The long-term health risks of moderate chlorine exposure include:
- Asthma and lung problems
- Tooth corrosion
- Increased risk of cancer
In addition, some people may experience long-term health effects from a serious case of chlorine poisoning. These effects vary based on how the person was exposed and the severity of their case. For example, the stomach or other parts of the digestive tract could be damaged from swallowing a product with chlorine.
There are several ways you can help prevent chlorine poisoning, including:
- Read labels carefully when using household cleaning products and follow the instructions accordingly.
- Keep chlorinated products away from food and out of children’s reach.
- Don’t leave chlorine products currently in use (in a bucket, sprayed onto a countertop, etc.) unattended.
- Never mix a chlorinated product with another product without finding out if it’s safe first. One particularly dangerous mixture is chlorine bleach mixed with ammonia.
- Leave any room or area which has a strong smell of chlorine.
Chlorine can be very effective for its intended purposes when used properly. However, it’s important to still exercise caution every time you use a product with chlorine or are in an area where chlorine is being utilized. Taking these steps will help you to avoid chlorine poisoning and its potentially severe side effects.