OMGZ! Chlorine gas could be dangerous!

If you happened to see a copy of the Washington Examiner today, you probably noticed the big scare font on the front about OMGZ TERRORISTS AND THE DC WATER SUPPLY! Now, when you see a cover of a newspaper that uses terms like terrorism and water supply, or a headline such as "Terror threat to city water" you'd probably assume it is referring to terrorists poisoning the water supply. Or disrupting the water supply. NBC4 went with the headline "When A Brita Filter Just Won't Do." This again makes you think about terrorists tampering with the water.

If you thought any of this about this story, well, you were totally wrong. That's right, the terror threat doesn't actually have anything to do with the safety of the water supply. It has to do with the disinfectant used in the city's water system. Like most city water systems, the DC area uses chlorine to keep the water (mostly safe). The Army Corps of Engineers is switching from a gaseous form of chlorine to a liquid form, because transporting chlorine gas can be dangerous.

You don't say? Yes, chlorine gas can be dangerous. You don't want to be trapped in a room full of the stuff. It can suffocate you. Also, when the gas reacts with water (such as in your body), hydrochloric acid is produced and can also cause death. The gas was briefly used as a chemical agent in World War I, but its use fell out of favor because it disperses quickly and is mostly ineffective as a weapon in outside areas. Terrorists in Iraq have attempted to blow up shipments of chlorine gas, hoping to poison people. The deaths in these incidents have been caused by the explosions themselves, as the gas disperses outside.

From the Examiner piece:

Chlorine and water disinfection "may be the best thing to happen to the world" in the last 100 years, Thomas Jacobus, Washington Aqueduct general manager, told The Examiner. But the gaseous chlorine that currently is being used is potentially deadly if released; it was used in World War I as a choking agent.

"If you've got individuals or movements who want to try to use your own products againt you, if someone were to intercept a rail car, reroute it and release its contents, it could be devastating," Jacobus said.

The aqueduct provides roughly 180 million gallons of drinking water a day to about 1 million residents in the District, Arlington and Falls Church.

The switch is "absolutely a good sign" for homeland security in the nation's capital, said D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson, chairman of the public safety committee.

But a broader fear remains: Dangerous materials are regularly transported through the District by rail, Mendelson said, and the federal government is far too secretive with that information.

Yes, in theory if someone were able to steal an entire railcar full of chlorine gas and pump it directly into the air supply of a building, it could be horrific. If someone blew up a train carrying chlorine gas, we'd probably have a costly clean-up and brief evacuations. It's not a laughing matter, but it is in absolutely no way a threat to the city's water supply. That's like saying TERROR THREAT TO YOUR CAR! Terrorists could blow up tanker trucks carrying gasoline!

Speaking of which, how about we talk about all the big gasoline trucks that drive around this city all of the time. Let's find someone who wants to be SERIOUS ON SAFETY and propose banning all gas stations within the District of Columbia. Honestly, those things provide a pretty big, high explosive target.

"When A Brita Filter Just Won't Help?" Yeah, it's true, a Brita filter will not protect you from a big bad scary cloud of chlorine gas. However, it's way off the mark. Not to mention awfully misleading. I guess I shouldn't expect more, though.

For what it's worth, the Examiner piece isn't a bad story--only the headline and front cover design are sensationalist and misleading.


  1. Oh great. Now the Examiner is taking journalism lessons from Fox News. Like "District residents afraid to leave their houses!!!" Oh, you mean someone shot a gun in the project? Yawn.

    Anyway, what most people fail to realize is that terrorists are 1) not necessarily that smart, 2) don't expect to live that long, and 3) don't have the Hollywood budget required for efforts along the lines of "Broken Arrow" and a typical James Bond movie.

    No, actually, you can cause an equal amount of terror far more cheaply and easily without stealing a truckful of liquid chlorine and somehow figuring a way to use it against anyone in any kind of effective manner.

    For example, depositing a couple gallons of liquid LSD into a water treatment facility would probably make everyone in the metropolitan area freak out completely and start killing each other, or at least hiding in their basements, and it would take months for authorities to figure out what happened. If they even could. Talk about bang for your buck! This is a far greater threat.

    Actually, given my level of paranoia about this sort of thing, it's possible it's already happened.

  2. I was stationed at the Anacostia Annex twice-- lived in barracks there once. I paid very close attention to any sort of news regarding Blue Plains once it was discovered that the facility was a sleeping tech away from accidentally releasing toxic gas upon our city.

    Just like with everything else, the terrorists aren't our biggest threat... it's lack of motivation, training, caring, pride, responsibility, etc.

    It used to hold true that if "It Bleeds it Leads." Now it seems "Extremiest is the Dreamiest" for our MSM editors. Anything that could possibly smell like a tie to terrorism will be up front and center, no matter how much of a non-story it really is.

  3. The Examiner is just about a full decade behind the times. The quote from the GM of WAD was clearly pulled from the archives. Post 9/11, the Aqueduct switched to treating drinking water with chloraminate.