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Centennial Celebration Of Chlorination

On Sept. 26, 1908, Jersey City, N.J., began operating the first permanent drinking water chlorination plant in the U.S. (shown). That historical tidbit is being celebrated by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) as another example of the benefit of chemistry in improving people’s lives.

Within a decade after the Jersey City facility went live, more than a thousand U.S. cities adopted chlorination technology; by the 1940s, 85% of U.S. water-treatment systems were disinfecting water with chlorine. Today, 90% of U.S. public water systems rely on chlorine in one form or another for purification, and as a result the U.S. enjoys one of the safest drinking-water supplies in the world.

ACC cited Harvard University research that showed drinking water filtration and chlorination, like that initiated at the Jersey City site, has reduced typhoid fever death rates by more than 90% and childhood mortality by more than 50% in major U.S. cities. The waterborne diseases cholera and typhoid fever once killed thousands of people each year. And according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, this steep decline in infectious diseases made possible by water chlorination, vaccinations, and other public health advances has contributed to the nearly 60% increase in U.S. life expectancy during the past century.

“Clean water is essential to life, and the chlorine disinfection process helps provide everything from a refreshing glass of tap water to healthy swimming pools to clean schools, restaurants, and hospitals,” ACC President and CEO Cal Dooley said in a press release. “Drinking water chlorination is a shining example of how chemistry plays a critical role in safeguarding the public health.”

Chlorine was first discovered in 1774, identified as an element in 1810, considered as a potential chemical warfare agent during the U.S. Civil War in the early 1860s–it was actually used for that nefarious purpose in World War I in Europe–and is now a key element in plastics. The Jersey City facility, which has expanded and is still in operation, was not the first to use chlorine as a large-scale disinfectant: It was used earlier to disinfect contaminated wells and reservoirs in Europe and the U.S., with the first permanent water-treatment facility established in Belgium in 1902.

Read more about the power of chlorine to purify water in an article by C&EN Assistant Managing Editor Michael McCoy.

Photo courtesy of Keith Wood, Watershed Superintendent, United Water Jersey City

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