Use of Chlorine and its Effects on Water: briefing

Water and Sanitation

10 October 2001
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The aim of this report is to summarise the main events at the meeting and identify the key role players. This report is not a verbatim transcript of proceedings.

WATER affairs and forestry Portfolio Committee
10 October 2001

Ms B. Sonjica

Documents handed out:

The Committee heard a series of presentations on water treatment systems. Researchers from H2O International spoke on water purification devices on the market for private consumption. Representatives from the Water Research Council, Rand Water, Sedibeng Water, UMGENI, and the City of Cape Town presented on the technical and cost differences of chlorine, fluoride, and ozone water treatment systems. Discussion and questions focused on the cost-effectiveness and safety of different water treatment systems for South Africa.

The Chairperson opened the meeting with brief announcements for Committee members before going around the table to introduce the presenters. She stated that the key objectives of the meeting were: (1) to explore the cost effectiveness of chlorine versus ozone water treatment, and (2) to attempt to solve, or allay, the myth that chlorine is bad for the human immune system. She introduced the first presenter, Mr D. Groves from H20 International.

H2O International
Mr Groves began his presentation to the Committee by noting the lack of understanding of the value and complexity of water. He emphasized that it was dangerous not to understand the effects of chlorine and dehydration on the immune system. He said that people took water for granted and that human beings have abused and polluted water sources since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. He believed that, in order to grasp the effects of water pollution, it was essential to pay attention to all of the uses of water. He quoted that dehydration caused 90 percent of diseases. It was his observation that water in rural areas was sub-standard, and poor water quality correlated directly with incidences of water borne diseases. Studies conducted in both the Western and Eastern Cape showed that water supply was sub-standard, and diarrhea, he noted, caused twenty percent of deaths in one to five-year-olds. He stated that pollutants contaminated every river in South Africa. He then gave an example of a rural chicken farmer who wanted the water from his borehole analysed. Both his chickens and staff were suffering from illness, and analysis showed that the borehole had been contaminated with fertilisers from the farm.

Mr Groves then began to develop his argument against the use of chlorine in water treatment. Chlorine gas, he reminded the Committee, was initially used as a biological weapon during World War II. The gas was a carcinogenic that attacked the digestive system. In addition, American studies have shown chlorine impact on Alzheimer's disease as well as bladder cancer. The United States had been using chlorine to sterilise its water supply for over 80 years, so studies put out by organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were noteworthy testaments to the long-term effects of the chemical. Mr Groves commented briefly that fluoride had been discussed as a chlorine alternative, but it was a "poison." He digressed, saying that the Soviet Union added sodium fluoride to the water in its prisons because it made prisoners more subdued and docile. Sodium fluoride was a mind-controlling substance and was present in 55 percent of all tranquilisers. Mr Groves' last point drew a connection between poor water supply and the spread of HIV/AIDS. He claimed that the damage that dehydration wrecked on the human body significantly weakened the immune system making people more susceptible to disease. He concluded stating that water purification via non-chemical means was the best solution and required the attention and investment of the South African Government.

The Chairperson thanked Mr Groves for his presentation. She reiterated the objectives of the meeting and reminded the presenters that the meeting was not a forum for marketing.

Mr T. Marchesini, also from H2O International, picked up the discussion. He began with the observation that most people did not drink water. People drank teas, coffees, and sodas, liquids that were diuretics dehydrating, rather than replenishing, the human body. H2O International, he continued, was saying, "Take the chlorine out." It was not cost-effective for cities to do this on a large scale; H2O was instead marketing the use of water purifiers for private use.

The Chairperson introduced Dr I. Msibi, from the Water Research Council (WRC).

Water Research Council
Dr Msibi began by explaining that the WRC was a state organisation that was not selling its research or technology but was rather looking for the most sustainable means to supply good water. He said that the WRC was one of South Africa's best investments, and its insights were at the "cutting edge" of the industry. Mr Msibi claimed that South Africa had one of the best water supply systems in the world. He stated that the Research Council's top priority was the sterilisation of drinking water. The difficulty, however, was in the implementation of sterilisation methods. In order for water to be safe to drink, he went on, it should contain residual chlorine.

Dr Msibi allowed that the WRC was aware of the potential risks of chlorine consumption; however, he argued that, weighed against the alternative of dying from bacterial infection, chlorine was the best possible solution. Most people would die without chlorine in their water as people lack the immunity to survive water-borne diseases. In connection with this, he mentioned that South Africa had a responsibility to individuals with immune deficiencies, including infants, children, the elderly, and those infected with HIV/AIDS. WRC was developing the approach, he said with confidence. However, implementation of their methodology was beyond their capacity.

Dr Msibi briefed the Committee on research that the Council had done into chlorine alternatives. For example, the WRC found ozone treatment to be more difficult and more expensive. Additionally, too much was still unknown about the technology. Other research had been devoted to the effective use of GAC PAC (Powdered Activated Carbon) as a polymer for organics removal. However, thus far, WRC maintained its support for the continued use of chlorine treatment.

The Chairperson thanked Dr. Msibi and stated that his presentation had raised the Committee's confidence. She reminded everyone present that South Africa's water supply was still not reaching everyone, and this was a challenge for the South African Government.

Mr D. Maimane (ANC) asked how many people were promoting the use of ozone treatment. He asked why, if the WRC was convinced by its studies that ozone treatment was not a viable option for South Africa, they did not discontinue the ozone dialogue.

The Chairperson reminded Mr Maimane that the Portfolio Committee could not invite the presenters and not hear from all of them. She added that she would ask those presenting on behalf of ozone technology to be brief.

Mr E. Sigwela (ANC) asked the representatives from H2O International how the removal of chemicals from drinking water worked at the technical level.

Mr Marchesini responded that there were simple methods that could be installed on a kitchen sink.

Mr Sigwela interrupted to inform Mr Marchesini that he was talking to someone who did not have a kitchen sink because he was from a rural area.

Mr Marchesini responded that, in that case, it was equally as beneficial to either boil drinking water or let it stand for a period of time so that the chlorine could evaporate.

Ms S. Freese, a presenter from UMGENI, interjected to remind Committee members that the purification methods that Mr Groves and Mr Marchesini advertised merely took out the "chemicals" that people would then turn around and buy at the grocery store as "vitamins." She then advised Mr Sigwela not to let his water stand as it could be contaminated by air-borne bacteria that existed in rural areas.

Dr Msibi added that water would be unsafe to drink if we removed all chemicals. The "gadgets" marketed by H2O International were misleading, they communicated that water should not contain any additives at all, and they raised fears.

Ms N. Basson, a presenter from Sedibeng Water, suggested that the series of presentations would provide the best perspective for seeing all sides of the debate.

Ms R. Ndzanga (ANC) said that she had been scared. For the first part of the meeting she was thinking that, for a long time, people did not have water near their homes, and now they were being told that the water supply was unsafe. However, Dr Msibi had allayed her fears, especially those for her grandchildren. She just had one question to address to Dr Msibi, and that was whether it was possible to treat water from a borehole.

The Chairperson added a question directed to Mr Groves. She wanted to know what he meant when he said that water was sub-standard in the rural areas.

Mr Groves responded that the report he quoted in his presentation was an assessment of all water, including tributary and river sources.

The Chair reiterated that Dr Msibi had told the Portfolio Committee that rural water was potable.

Mr Groves said that he and Dr Msibi were in disagreement.

Dr Msibi jumped to the defense of magical chlorine again.

The Chairperson introduced Mr J. Geldenhuys, presenting for Rand Water.

Rand Water
Mr Geldenhuys began his presentation with a step-by-step explanation of the water purification process: (1) remove suspended matter; (2) filter the water to remove more fine matter and; (3) disinfect with chemical(s) of choice. He stated that Rand Water supported the use of chlorine as a disinfectant. The disinfecting process removed, or killed, all pathogens or typically harmful organisms. The methods employed for water purification included the use of chlorine, or chlorine compounds, ozone treatment, and UV application. Mr Geldenhuys briefly summarized the pros and cons of chlorine versus ozone treatment. He said that chlorine was easier to measure than ozone, and chlorine treatment required much simpler technology that was available on the domestic South African market. Chlorine treatment did not require electricity, which was advantageous for areas either without or with inconsistent electrical means. He said that chlorine was toxic if it leaked, though it rarely did, and ozone was toxic if it was released into the atmosphere. Finally, because ozone treatment only lasted for a short period of time, when ozone treatment was applied, it was still necessary to add chlorine to the final, potable product.

Mr Geldenhuys added that studies connecting chlorine intake to cancer were not proven, and his firm, as yet, had not determined long-term effects of the chemical on the human body. Disinfecting water, he concluded, protected the whole population at once, and, in particular, infants, children, elderly, and the immune deficient. He informed the Committee that these population groups made up 60 percent of the population.

The Chairperson thanked Mr Geldenhuys and asked to hear from Ms Basson, representing Sedibeng Water.

Sedibeng Water
Ms Basson stated that she had not prepared a formal presentation; however, she wanted to make a plea to the presenters from H2O International. She asked that they not wreak havoc with their information and marketing strategies. She asked that they allow people to feel safe with the public water supply. Their technology, she allowed, had a place in the "Constantias" of South Africa, but it was unnecessary to cause worry in populations that could not afford it.

The Chairperson reminded all present that she had already spoken to this effect and asked that neither the presenters nor Committee members belabor the point. She then turned the microphones over to presenter Ms S. Freese, a senior scientist from the water supplier UMGENI.

Ms Freese began by posing the question, "Why the scare with chlorine?" She explained that trihalomethanes (THMs) could form from chlorination and that high exposure to THMs could cause cancer. However, she asked the Committee permission to put those facts into perspective. She said that over-the-counter cough syrups would contain chloroform, and a person would have to drink eight full glasses of the syrup every day for one year to get enough of the chemical into their system to cause damage. Chlorine was estimated to save 25,000 lives per day.

Mr Maimane posed a question regarding the cost effectiveness of the different methods of water treatment that had been presented. He stated that he was satisfied with the presentation made by the WRC.

The Chairperson concurred that water purification tactics were merely for private consumption and should not be pursued by Government for large-scale water supply.

The Chairperson then asked the representatives from the Department if there was a "bureau of standards," or something comparable that regulated the water supply industry.

Dr Msibi responded that monitoring the industry was an enormous challenge. The chemicals used for water treatment, moreover, were not regulated.

Mr Geldenhuys interjected that, if the same chemicals were being used by industry, they had to comply with European Community regulations.

Mr Crawford from the Department briefly explained those regulations to the Committee and how they might apply to water supply treatment. He said that regulations needed to be more stringent, especially for small schemes, which were, he admitted, only as good as the people who ran them. Water quality was only as good as the people who looked after it. He concluded by thanking the presenters from H2O International, saying that the Department was in fact grateful for hearing all the input so that they could best judge the solutions viable for South Africa.

The Chairperson then acknowledged the last presenter, Mr S. Pietevse from the City of Cape Town.

City of Cape Town
Mr Pietevse made a plea to Cape Town residents not to purify their water at home. Cape Town used chlorine treatment, he elaborated, and serviced areas had not experienced one cholera case.

The Chairperson thanked Mr Pietevese for his confidence and stated that the presentations had been very technical, and the presenters had succeeded in making them "member-friendly." She made an appeal to the Committee that, while the majority of the South African population could not afford the products made by H2O International, it was important that members not leave the venue and spread negative feelings about the company. She addressed Mr Crawford, saying that she hoped he had taken note of the problems with industry regulations. Finally, she stated that the morning's discussions had illuminated the challenges that the Government faced. The quality of South Africa's water was good, she said, and the Government needed to instill confidence in the population. In addition, the Government needed to be honest with people about the areas where the it was not yet succeeding in the potable water supply. The largest challenge for South Africa was that technology did not reach all sectors of the population, and Government needed to improve the delivery of clean water. She concluded that this should be done in order for South Africa to realise its vision of improving the quality of life for all South Africans.

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