Public Health Statement for Chlorine Dioxide and Chlorite
Spanish: Dióxido de Cloro y Clorito
CAS#: 10049-04-4 (Chlorine Dioxide); 7758-19-2 (Chlorite)
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This Public Health Statement is the summary chapter from the
Toxicological Profile for Chlorine Dioxide and Chlorite. It is one in a series of Public Health
Statements about hazardous substances and their health effects. A shorter
version, the ToxFAQs™, is also available. This
information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of
exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you
are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are
present. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at
This public health statement tells you
about chlorine dioxide and chlorite and the effects of exposure
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies the most serious hazardous waste sites in the nation. These sites are then placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) and are targeted for long-term federal clean-up activities. Chlorine dioxide and chlorite have not been found in any of the 1,647 current or former NPL sites. Although the total number of NPL sites evaluated for these substances is not known, the possibility exists that chlorine dioxide and chlorite may be found in the future as more sites are evaluated. This information is important because these sites may be sources of exposure and exposure to these substances may harm you.
When a substance is released either from a large area, such as an industrial plant, or from a container, such as a drum or bottle, it enters the environment. Such a release does not always lead to exposure. You can be exposed to a substance only when you come in contact with it. You may be exposed by breathing, eating, or drinking the substance, or by skin contact.
If you are exposed to chlorine dioxide or chlorite, many factors will determine whether you will be harmed. These factors include the dose (how much), the duration (how long), and how you come in contact with them. You must also consider any other chemicals you are exposed to and your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health.
What are chlorine dioxide and chlorite?
Chlorine dioxide is a yellow to reddish-yellow gas that can decompose rapidly in air. Because it is a hazardous gas, chlorine dioxide is always made at the location where it is used. Chlorine dioxide is used as a bleach at pulp mills, which make paper and paper products, and in public water-treatment facilities, to make water safe for drinking. It has also been used to decontaminate public buildings. Chlorine dioxide is soluble in water and will react rapidly with other compounds. When it reacts in water, chlorine dioxide forms chlorite ion, which is also a very reactive chemical. Because chlorine dioxide is very reactive, it is able to kill bacteria and microorganisms in water. About 5% of large water-treatment facilities (serving more than 100,000 persons) in the United States use chlorine dioxide to treat drinking water. An estimated 12 million persons may be exposed in this way to chlorine dioxide and chlorite ions. In communities that use chlorine dioxide to treat drinking water, chlorine dioxide and its by-product, chlorite ions, may be present at low levels in tap water.
In this profile, the term "chlorite"
will be used to refer to "chlorite ion," which is
a water-soluble ion. Chlorite ion can combine with metal ions
to form solid salts (e.g., sodium chlorite). Sodium chlorite
dissolves in water and forms chlorite ions and sodium ions.
More than 80% of all chlorite (present as sodium chlorite)
is used to make chlorine dioxide to disinfect drinking water.
Sodium chlorite is also used as a disinfectant to kill germs.
What happens to chlorine dioxide and chlorite when they enter the environment?
Chlorine dioxide is a very reactive compound.
In air, sunlight quickly breaks chlorine dioxide apart into
chlorine gas and oxygen. In water, chlorine dioxide reacts
quickly to form chlorite ions. When chlorine dioxide reacts
with dissolved organic compounds in water-treatment systems,
it forms disinfection by-products, such as chlorite and chlorate
Like chlorine dioxide, chlorite is very
reactive. Since chlorite is an ionic compound, it will exist
primarily in water. Chlorite ions are mobile in water, and
may move into groundwater. However, the reaction of chlorite
ions with soils and sediments may reduce the concentration
of chlorite ions capable of reaching groundwater.
How might I be exposed to chlorine dioxide and chlorite?
Chlorine dioxide is added to drinking
water to protect people from harmful bacteria and other microorganisms.
Most people will be exposed to chlorine dioxide and its disinfection
by-product, chlorite ions, when they drink water that has
been treated with chlorine dioxide. The EPA has set the maximum
concentration in the drinking water at 0.8 milligrams per
liter (mg/L) for chlorine dioxide and 1.0 mg/L for chlorite
ion. The concentrations of chlorine dioxide and chlorite ion
in your drinking water, however, may be lower or higher than
How can chlorine dioxide and chlorite enter and leave my body?
Chlorine dioxide and chlorite usually
enter the body when people drink water that has been disinfected
with chlorine dioxide. Because chlorine dioxide rapidly breaks
down in air to chlorine gas and oxygen, you would not likely
breathe air containing dangerous levels of chlorine dioxide,
but if you did, it could be absorbed across your lungs. You
are not likely to encounter chlorite in the air you breathe.
Whether chlorine dioxide or chlorite on your skin would be
absorbed to any great extent is not known.
Both chlorine dioxide and chlorite act
quickly when they enter the body. Chlorine dioxide quickly
changes to chlorite ions, which are broken down further into
chloride ions. The body uses these ions for many normal purposes.
Some chloride ions leave the body within hours or days, mainly
in the urine. Most chlorite that is not broken down also leaves
the body in the urine within a few days after exposure to
chlorine dioxide or chlorite.
How can chlorine dioxide and chlorite affect my health?
Both chlorine dioxide and chlorite react
quickly in water and moist body tissues. If you were to breathe
air containing chlorine dioxide gas, you might experience
irritation in your nose, throat, and lungs. If you were to
eat or drink large amounts of chlorine dioxide or chlorite,
you might experience irritation in the mouth, esophagus, or
stomach. Most people will not be exposed to chlorine dioxide
or chlorite in amounts large enough to damage other parts
of the body, but if you were, you might experience shortness
of breath and other respiratory problems because of damage
to the substances in blood that carry oxygen throughout the
Scientists use many tests to protect
the public from harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to
find ways for treating persons who have been harmed.
One way to learn whether a chemical will
harm people is to determine how the body absorbs, uses, and
releases the chemical. For some chemicals, animal testing
may be necessary. Animal testing may also help identify health
effects such as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory
animals, scientists would lose a basic method for getting
information needed to make wise decisions that protect public
health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research
animals with care and compassion. Scientists must comply with
strict animal care guidelines because laws today protect the
welfare of research animals.
Animal studies have shown effects of
chlorine dioxide and chlorite that are similar to those seen
in people exposed to very high amounts of these chemicals.
In addition, exposure to high levels of chlorine dioxide and
chlorite in animals both before birth and during early development
after birth may cause delays in brain development. The levels
to which the animals were exposed were much higher than levels
that would likely be found in drinking water that has been
disinfected with chlorine dioxide.
How can chlorine dioxide and chlorite affect children?
This section discusses potential health
effects in humans from exposures during the period from conception
to maturity at 18 years of age.
Children exposed to large amounts of
chlorine dioxide or chlorite would likely be affected in the
same manner as adults. Exposure to chlorine dioxide gas in
young children, however, might more quickly reduce the ability
of blood to carry oxygen than in adults, making breathing
more difficult. If infants or babies still in their mother's
womb were exposed to large amounts of chlorine dioxide, it
might cause parts of their brains to develop more slowly.
This has been seen in young animals, but has not actually
been seen in humans.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to chlorine dioxide
If your doctor finds that you have been
exposed to substantial amounts of chlorine dioxide or chlorite,
ask whether your children might also have been exposed. Your
doctor might need to ask your state health department to investigate.
Families that drink water treated with
chlorine dioxide may reduce the risk of exposure to chlorine
dioxide and chlorite ions by drinking bottled water that has
not been treated with chlorine dioxide or chlorite ions.
Is there a medical test to determine whether I have been exposed
to chlorine dioxide and chlorite?
Although no medical tests are available
to determine whether you have been exposed to chlorine dioxide
or chlorite, exposure to very large amounts may result in
damage to red blood cells that can be observed through routine
What recommendations has the federal
government made to protect human health?
The federal government develops regulations
and recommendations to protect public health. Regulations
can be enforced by law. The EPA, the Occupational Safety
and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) are some federal agencies that develop regulations for
toxic substances. Recommendations provide valuable guidelines
to protect public health, but cannot be enforced by
law. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
(ATSDR) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety
and Health (NIOSH) are two federal organizations that develop
recommendations for toxic substances.
Regulations and recommendations can be
expressed as "not-to-exceed" levels, that is, levels
of a toxic substance in air, water, soil, or food that do
not exceed a critical value that is usually based on levels
that affect animals; they are then adjusted to levels that
will help protect humans. Sometimes these not-to-exceed levels
differ among federal organizations because they used different
exposure times (an 8-hour workday or a 24 hour day), different
animal studies, or other factors.
Recommendations and regulations are also
updated periodically as more information becomes available.
For the most current information, check with the federal agency
or organization that provides it. Some regulations and recommendations
for chlorine dioxide and chlorite include the following:
OSHA regulates the level of chlorine
dioxide in workplace air. The occupational exposure limit
for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek is 0.1 parts per million
(0.28 milligrams per cubic meter [mg/m³]). The EPA has set
a maximum contaminant level of 1 mg/L for chlorite in drinking
water and a goal of 0.8 mg/L for both the maximum residual
disinfectant level for chlorine dioxide and the maximum contaminant
level for chlorite in drinking water that has been treated
with chlorine dioxide as a disinfectant.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2004.
Toxicological profile for Chlorine Dioxide and Chlorite. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences
4770 Buford Highway
Chamblee, GA 30341-3717
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.