Living with the Devil's Element

BBC's film on chlorine is more successful in underlining the vital role it plays in daily life, rather than in detailing why it should be banned

By Sevanti Ninan
Published: Tuesday 31 August 1993

POISONING of nature is a constant obsession with BBC's Nature series. The latest episode in the series was on the ubiquitous yet controversial chlorine, a chemical the programme dubs as "The Devil's Element". The title has been derived from the words of a professor of environmental chemistry: "There are 91 chemical elements that come to us from God and one from the devil."

The film is about a green crusade in Europe against chlorine. The chief opponent of the chemical in the film is a Greenpeace spokesman, who talks evocatively of seals dying in the river Rhine because of chlorine-based toxicity.

On the other hand, the scientists interviewed tend to lean on the benefits of chlorine so that by the end of the programme, more than the devilish qualities of chlorine, it is its indispensability in daily life that gets established.

Theoretically, chlorine is indeed a villain -- it produces some of the most toxic compounds known to humans: ozone-harming chlorofluorocarbons and DDT, the poisonous pesticide. But since its toxicity in humans is skimpily established and because of its myriad uses, the film is unable to find many people in favour of banning it.

Chlorine is derived from common salt. If one form of it poisons water, another disinfects drinking water. Chlorine is also involved in the manufacture of PVC or polivinylchloride, a material used all over the world and one that is difficult to recycle. But so great is the versatility of PVC that in Europe alone, 50,000 people are directly or indirectly employed in the manufacture of PVC-derived products. Obviously, a ban on PVC won't be easy to implement. All the same, as the film points out, there are some PVC-free supermarkets in Europe and a town called Bielefield has an environmentally correct concert hall, in which no PVC has been used.

However, Europe is still a long way from acting on the advice of its green activists because, as the film says, to go the whole hog would mean altering drastically the way most of us lead.
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