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Backgrounder: What Are Organochlorines? And Why Are They So Dangerous?

Image: Silent Spring, Aniversary Edition, by Rachel Carson (Author). Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 40 Anv edition (October 22, 2002)

Silent Spring
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Many people wonder why whiter than white - when achieved using chlorine-based agents - is dangerous.

Brief History of Human Applications of Chlorine

To understand, a brief history of synthetic (i.e. human-made) chlorinated substances helps.

Gaseous (or elemental) chlorine - a highly-reactive yellowish-green gas with a distinctive odour - was first produced in the 19th century by breaking the chemical bond between sodium and chlorine in ordinary salt (officially known as sodium chloride). Gaseous chlorine soon became widely used as a bleaching agent and disinfectant. During the First World War, chlorine and mustard gas (another chlorine derivative) were turned against enemy soldiers as chemical weapons.

During the Second World War, both sides worked diligently to invent poisonous weapons far more pernicious than chlorine and mustard gas. As Rachel Carson explains in her classic work, Silent Spring (1962), WWII marked the rapid acceleration of experiments to combine gaseous chlorine with organic matter (organic = combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms that are the building blocks of all life on earth). Many of these substances were tried out on insects, and when the war ended, they were turned with a vengeance against agricultural pests. DDT is one notable invention of Second World War laboratories.

The chemical industry mushroomed in the 1950's, and front and centre was chlorine combined with organic substances, usually petrochemicals. Plastics, paints, dyes, deodorants, bleaching agents, refrigerants, wood preservers and cleaning solvents - in addition to pesticides - are some of the products which often use combinations of chlorine and organics, otherwise known as organochlorines. Making rayon and cellulose also depend on the use of industrial chlorine. More than 60,000 chlorinated compounds are produced on purpose.

Image: The Sanitary Protection Scandal, by Alison, Bernadette Valleley, Josa Young Costello (Author). Publisher: Women's Environmental Network (1989)

The Sanitary Protection Scandal
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Chlorine's Troubling Environmental Legacy

Along with the products, however, come a long and dangerous list of pollutants.
Here are just a few:

• Chloroflourocarbons, largely responsible for destruction of the ozone layer, are scheduled to be banned in North America by 1997, although the deadline for their elimination in Third World countries is longer. Still, even if CFC's and other ozone-depleting substances were banned immediately, scientist say it would take from 75 to 100 years for the ozone layer to fully recover.

•Polychlorinated biphenyls, widely used as electrical insulators until the 1970's when they were banned. PCB's continue to wreak havoc on wildlife, interfering with reproduction, causing birth defects and depressing immunity. They also adversely affect human health.
(See pages 23-28, Whitewash)

• Dioxins and furans are chlorinated chemical accidents that have no useful application whatsoever. These result from a variety of processes, including bleaching pulp bright white with chlorine, copper smelting, burning of municipal and toxic waste, using leaded gas, and so on. The dioxin 2,3,7,8-TCDD (tetra-chloro-dibenzo-p-dioxin), is thousands of times more powerful than thalidomide or cyanide, and is considered by scientists to be the most potent synthetic poison ever created.

• The North American pulp and paper industry alone pumps 100 million tonnes of organochlorines - including dioxins and furans - into our waterways each year.

• Even household chlorine bleach - a dilute solution of sodium hypochlorite - produces trace amounts of chloroform, a known animal carcinogen and suspected human carcinogen.

Image: Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women's Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers : What You Can Do About It, by Liz Armstrong (Author), Adrienne Scott (Author). Publisher: Harpercollins (May 1993)

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Why Are Organochlorines So Odious?

(See pages 13-14, Whitewash)

• Most of the chemicals produced by forging new bonds between chlorine and organic substances are brand new to nature. They resist breakdown and are often very slow to decompose, in some cases taking years or decades. Some actually break down into more toxic substances once in the environment.

• Organochlorines are often hydrophobic and lipophilic. That is, they hate water and love fat, which is bad news for living creatures. Most do not readily dissolve in water, but instead gravitate toward fat-containing organisms where their persistence allows them to ioaccumulate as they move up the food chain. Dioxins and furans in the tissues of some fish species, for example, have been measured at 150 times greater than their level in the surrounding water.

• They're excellent hitch-hikers, carried everywhere by atmospheric winds, river systems and ocean currents. This accounts for their widespread presence in once pristine environments like the Arctic. Some water-borne organochlorines have been found 1400 kilometres downstream of their pulp mill of origin.

• While some organochlorines do occur naturally in the environment, with few exceptions, these are produced on a very small scale and serve very precise functions in the host organism (for example, they might act as an antibiotic). Industrially-produced organochlorines, on the other hand, are almost completely foreign to nature. Still, they may be similar enough to naturally occurring (unchlorinated) substances to trick living organisms, some of which can't easily detoxify or eliminate them. One theory about dioxin, for example, is that it mimics a steroid-like hormone. Masquerading as this hormone, it fools the body's standard chemical response into setting off a variety of physiological effects.

• These effects include suppressed immunity, damage to major organs such as the liver, reproductive and developmental impairment, infertility, birth defects and cancer. Rainbow trout have experienced delayed mortality (death 28 days after exposure) and changes in growth and behaviour at the imaginably low dose of 38 parts per quadrillion of dioxin, which in numerals looks like this:

• Humans aren't exempt. Quote from Dr. Jack Vallentyne, Senior Scientist, Canada Centre for Inland Waters, Burlington, Ontario: toxic chemicals, in large part organochlorines, have impaired and are impairing the natural populations of fish, reptiles, birds and mammals in the Great Lakes Basin. The concentrations of organochlorines in these wild populations are in the same general range as those found in human populations. Because of their short generation times, populations of fish and wildlife may be showing effects that will appear later in human populations. On this basis, and direct evidence from a limited number of human studies, the reports also concluded that there is a clear threat to human health. The dimensions of the human health threat are not well known.

Are whiter than white women's sanitary products and disposable diapers truly worth this risk?


The publication of this material was made possible by a grant from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. The view and ideas expressed herein are those of the Stop the Whitewash campaign organizers and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

Stop the Whitewash and the Waste is a project of the Women and Environments Education and Development Foundation (WEEDS)
To contact them for further information: 517 College St, Suite 233, Toronto, Ontario M6G 4A2 ~ Phone: 416-928-0880 ~ Fax: 416-928-9640 ~ Email:

This article compliments of Born to Love.

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Feminine Ecology Notes
Women Taking the Initiative for a Safer Environment
Fast Facts from Whitewash
Backgrounder: What Are Organochlorines? And Why Are They So Dangerous?
What Women Can Do to Stop the Whitewash
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Last updated - February 8, 2017