A wide range of industrial and household products contain chlorine. Although these products are safe when handled correctly, chlorine is poisonous and swallowing or inhaling it can cause harm.
Chlorine poisoning is a medical emergency. If a person swallows or inhales a chlorine-based product and shows symptoms of poisoning, contact the emergency services or go to the hospital immediately. In the United States, a person can also contact the National Poison Control helpline on 1-800-222-1222 for advice. This service is confidential and free of charge.
In this article, we discuss the causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of chlorine poisoning.
Chlorine is a naturally occurring yellow-green gas. Although highly toxic, chlorine has a wide range of industrial and household uses.
For example, manufacturers use chlorine to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a common type of plastic. Chlorine is also crucial in the manufacture of around 85 percent of pharmaceutical products.
In the home, a person can find chlorine in:
- cleaning products
- water purification tablets
- other domestic chemicals
Chlorine can react with water to form hydrochloric acid and hypochlorous acid, which are highly toxic. When using any products containing chlorine, take care not to ingest or inhale them as the chlorine can react with water in the body to form these two harmful acids.
Chlorine has antibacterial properties, which means it kills and prevents the growth of bacteria. As a result, people commonly use chlorine in very low concentrations to purify drinking water and sanitize swimming pools.
Although the amount of chlorine in a swimming pool is usually minimal, swallowing too much pool water may lead to chlorine poisoning. The concentration of chlorine in public drinking water is extremely low and not harmful to human health.
Mixing products that contain chlorine with other chemicals can also result in the release of dangerous chlorine gases. Always read the instructions carefully and use appropriate safety equipment before handling any products that contain chlorine.
The type and severity of symptoms from chlorine poisoning will depend on several factors, including:
- the amount of chlorine
- the type of exposure
- the length of exposure
However, symptoms can be immediate and severe following exposure to dangerous amounts of chlorine. These symptoms may include:
- breathing difficulties
- coughing and wheezing
- chest tightness
- blurry vision and watery eyes
- abdominal pain
- pain or burning in the nose, mouth, or eyes
- nausea and vomiting
- blood in vomit or stools
- rapid changes in blood pressure
- skin irritation and blisters
- pulmonary edema, which is a build-up of fluid in the lungs
Diagnosing chlorine poisoning is usually straightforward as symptoms develop rapidly after ingestion or inhalation of the chemical.
If the poisoning is due to chlorine gas, leave the area immediately and move somewhere where there is clean air, which may mean going outside.
If chlorine has contaminated skin or clothing, remove the clothing and wash the entire body with soap and water.
For burning eyes or blurred vision, rinse the eyes thoroughly with clean water and remove any contact lenses.
If a person has swallowed chlorine, do not drink any fluids or attempt to force the chlorine out by vomiting.
After following these steps, seek immediate medical advice before taking further action.
Doctors usually treat people with chlorine poisoning in the hospital emergency department. There is currently no antidote for chlorine exposure. Treatment focuses on removing the chlorine from the body as quickly as possible, which may involve the use of medication or activated charcoal.
In some cases, a doctor may need to empty the person’s stomach using gastric suction. This procedure involves inserting a tube through the nose or mouth and down into the stomach. The doctor then uses suction to drain the contents of the stomach through the tube.
To assess the impact of the chlorine on the person’s body, a doctor may order one or more of the following tests:
- chest X-ray
- electrocardiogram (ECG)
A person with chlorine poisoning may also require further hospital care to treat symptoms and support breathing.
Chlorine poisoning can be severe, even with proper medical care. The outlook will depend on the amount and type of chlorine exposure, and how soon a person receives treatment.
It is possible to prevent chlorine poisoning by handling chlorine-based products with extra care, including:
- always reading the instructions and following them carefully
- never mixing chlorine-based chemicals with other products or substances, unless the guidelines specify otherwise
- wearing appropriate clothing and safety gear
- handling products in well-ventilated areas
- storing chemicals appropriately and keeping them locked away from children
Many industrial and household products contain chlorine, including bleaches, cleaning products, and water purification tablets. Although chlorine is a highly toxic chemical, it is safe when handled correctly.
Chlorine exposure can cause serious harm. If a person shows signs or symptoms of chlorine poisoning, call the emergency services immediately and await their advice before taking further action. If possible, however, the individual should move to a safe area, remove any contaminated clothing, and wash their skin.
Treatment for chlorine poisoning aims to remove the substance from the person’s body as quickly as possible and to prevent further harm. The outlook depends on the amount and type of chlorine exposure and how rapidly the individual receives medical care.