Chlorine: Exposure, Decontamination, Treatment

What Chlorine Is

  • Chlorine is a chemical element commonly used in industry and found in some household products.
  • When chlorine gas comes into contact with moist tissues such as the eyes, throat, and lungs, an acid is produced that can damage these tissues.
  • At room temperature, chlorine is a yellow-green gas under normal conditions and can be dissolved in water. Chlorine can also be pressurized and cooled to change into a liquid so it can be stored and transported.
  • When liquid chlorine is released, it quickly turns into a gas that stays close to the ground and spreads rapidly.
  • Chlorine gas can be recognized by its pungent, irritating odor, which is like the odor of bleach. However, repeated exposure to chlorine reduces the ability to detect the odor.
  • Chlorine can react explosively or form explosive compounds with many common substances such as acetylene, ether, turpentine, ammonia, fuel gas, hydrogen, and finely divided metals.
  • Chlorine is also commonly used in a liquid form as sodium hypochlorite, such as household bleach.

How People Can Be Exposed to Chlorine

  • Household chlorine bleach can release chlorine gas if it is mixed with certain other cleaning agents. DO NOT MIX HOUSEHOULD CLEANERS.
  • After a release of chlorine into the air, people can be exposed through skin or eye contact, or inhaling (breathing in) the chlorine gas.
  • Following release of chlorine into water, people can be exposed by touching or drinking water that contains chlorine.
  • While food or drink could become contaminated with chlorine, it is unlikely to be eaten or drunk because chlorine has a very bad odor and taste.
  • Because chlorine gas is heavier than air, it will sink to low-lying areas and increase the risk of exposure there.

Food Contaminated with Chlorine

  • Food not contained in glass or metal (such as plastic, paper, or cloth containers) that may have come into contact with liquid chlorine should be avoided.
  • If the food is in an undamaged sealed glass or metal container, it should not be affected by a chlorine release. Wash the outside of the container before using.
  • If the food smells, tastes, or looks unusual, avoid using the food.
  • Follow any directions by local authorities.

Signs and Symptoms of Chlorine Exposure

Most people will smell a noxious odor or feel irritation that indicates exposure to chlorine, but low-level exposure for a long time may affect their ability to sense the chemical. When chlorine gas comes into contact with moist tissues such as the eyes, throat, and lungs, an acid is produced that can damage these tissues.

Signs and symptoms vary depending on how the person was exposed, the amount of chlorine (mass), and the length of time of the exposure. Some people with asthma or other chronic lung diseases may be more sensitive to breathing chlorine than others.

During or immediately after exposure to high concentrations of chlorine, the following signs and symptoms may develop:

  • Blurred vision
  • Burning sensation in the nose, throat, lungs, and eyes
  • Coughing
  • Coughing up white to pink-tinged fluid that may be delayed by a few hours
  • Chest tightness
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath (These may appear immediately if high concentrations are inhaled or they may be delayed if low concentrations are inhaled.)
  • Eye tearing
  • Frostbite if exposed to liquified chlorine
  • Nausea
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Respiratory failure
  • Skin pain, redness, blisters
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

What to Do If Exposed to Chlorine

  1. Get away from the area where the chlorine gas was released and breathe fresh air. Make sure you understand your local emergency notification system if you have one. Refer to emergency broadcasts and local authorities for instructions.
  • If the chlorine release was outdoors, go indoors and shelter in place. Make sure windows are closed and ventilation systems are turned off to make sure the contamination does not come inside. If you cannot go indoors, leave the area where the chlorine was released.
  • If you cannot get away from the area where chlorine was released, go to the highest ground possible because chlorine is heavier than air and will sink to low-lying areas.
  • If the chlorine release was indoors, get out of the building and seek higher ground.
  • If the chlorine release was from household cleaners or chemicals, open windows and doors to the outside to let in fresh air. Leave the area until the gas has dispersed. Call the Poison Control Center for further assistance at 1-800-222-1222.
  1. Get it off your body right away!

Unless frozen to the skin, taking off all layers of clothing (including jewelry and accessories) and showering is the best method for removing chlorine from your body. Ideally, undress and shower immediately or as soon as you can, as described below. If you cannot take off all layers, take off as many clothes as you can.  If clothes are frozen to your body, do not try to remove until no longer frozen. Instead, begin washing with a lot of lukewarm water. Then remove your clothes.

  • Avoid pulling clothing over your head. If you must pull clothing over your head, close your eyes and mouth, and hold your breath so you don’t get chlorine in your eyes, nose, or mouth. Place items in a designated area, preferably in a plastic bag.
  • If you wear contact lenses, take them out and place them with your clothing. Do not put contact lenses back in.
  • First wash your hair, face, and hands, and then wash the rest of your body. Wash from your head to your feet including armpits and groin with a lot of lukewarm water and mild soap (if available) for several minutes. Finish with a plain water rinse. Try not to let the water run into your eyes, nose, or mouth. Do not scrub!
  • If your eyes are burning or you can’t see normally, flush your eyes for 10–15 minutes with lukewarm water. Do not use eye drops.
  • Dry your face, then tilt your head back and dry your hair, and then dry down your body. Use anything that will soak up water. Drop used things to the floor. Dress in any available clean clothes to prevent hypothermia. This is especially important if temperatures are cool.
  • If emergency response services are available, leave used items on the floor and report their location to emergency personnel. Move as far from the used items as possible. Otherwise, put on waterproof or heavy gloves that won’t seep through. Gather all used things from the floor and put them in a plastic bag, close it up, and place it in a second plastic bag. Close up the second bag also.
  • Do not put the bags in the regular trash! Place the bags in an area where other people are unlikely to disturb them and come in contact with chlorine. Inform local authorities of the location of the bags for pick up.
  1. Get help right away by calling 911, going to the hospital if local officials say it is safe to leave your home, or calling the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Treatment for Chlorine Exposure

No known antidote exists for chlorine exposure. Treatment consists of removing the chlorine from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care. Symptoms can be treated in a hospital setting or by trained emergency personnel.

If someone has ingested chlorine, do NOT induce vomiting.

Long-term Health Effects

After acute exposure, pulmonary function usually returns toward normal within 7 to 14 days. Although most people recover completely, symptoms and prolonged pulmonary impairment may persist for those more seriously exposed. Exposure to chlorine can lead to reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS), a chemical irritant–induced type of asthma.

Chronic exposure to chlorine, usually in the workplace, may cause corrosion of the teeth. Multiple exposures to chlorine may produce flu-like symptoms and a high risk of developing RADS.

For a comprehensive list of chemical agent information, see Chemicals A-Z.