Chlorine: A Chemical Health Threat

April 07, 2023

On 9th July 2022, there was a fire at a chemical plant in the Binh Chanh district of Ho Chi Minh City which burned for several days spreading chlorine fumes across a 300m radius, forcing evacuation.  

Chlorine is an element that appears as a greenish gas in its natural form. It is a very commonly manufactured chemical that is used in the manufacture of bleach, pesticides, rubber and solvents. It is used to sterilize drinking water and swimming pools (the use in which people most commonly encounter it). 

In higher concentrations however, it can be quite toxic, and indeed was experimented with as a chemical weapon in WW1. Symptoms of exposure include blurred vision, burning/blistering of skin and throat, breathing difficulties, nausea and vomiting. Its late complications include pulmonary oedema (fluid on the lungs). 

There is no antidote to chlorine poisoning. Treatment is based on removing as much of the exposure as possible. Clothing should be immediately removed and ideally double bagged. Exposed people should wash themselves down with soap and water immediately. Eyes should be washed out with clean water, also immediately. Contact lenses should be removed and not worn again. Spectacles can be replaced after washing. It is not advised to induce vomiting or drink fluids after exposure, before medical care has been sought.  

Perhaps the main consequence of chlorine pollution is environmental. The gas reacts with the environment to form dioxins, which are highly toxic to plant and animal life. Although hundreds of families were evacuated from the area around the Binh Chanh fire, there were no human fatalities. However, pets and farm animals were killed in large numbers, while the nearby trees and paddy fields were destroyed.  

Health and safety have become unfashionable concepts in recent political debates, but incidents like this one remind us of their importance.  

Dr Julian Martin Chadwick - Internal Medicine Physician
Columbia Asia Hospital - Saigon