Monday, February 27, 2012


Interview With an Element: Chlorine

Are you Bleach?

No. I am not Bleach, I am me. The success of Bleach would not have been possible without Sodium and Oxygen. We all have our roles to play. Oxygen does its own part. On my own I am just chlorine, but as sodium hypochlorite something more than that. My solo career was never as successful, looking back I needed time to see that — and I guess time to grow as an element.

Is it true that Bleach is behind “Eau de Labarraque”?

Yes. Eau de Labarraque was our first project together, and that goes way back to that summer in France in 1820. Many people accused us of selling out when we started over as Bleach, but it was just a natural step in our development at the time and a way to reach a greater audience.

What would you call your greatest success with Bleach?

Clearly that is our role in disinfection. Everyone knows about drinking water and swimming pools. We were even involved in deodorizing the body of Louis XVIII…  But I would say our role in preventing child bed fever is something that is often overlooked. Our project with Ignaz Semmelweis in the 1840s did not gain the recognition it should have. His idea of disinfecting your hands after dissection of a cadaver and assisting in the delivery room was so new at the time it was rejected by the medical profession for decades. Semmelweis died at the age of 47 of gangrene after a severe beating in a mental institution asylum in Vienna, and I wish he would get more recognition.

Why did your partnership with Oxygen end?

It did not end. The media love to spread rumors about rivalry, especially after oxygen started its new project OxiClean more than a decade ago, but we remain good friends. Oxygen may be more popular and is getting not as bad press as me, but I am not bitter. I am focused on my collaboration with Sodium and do not have much time to follow whatever gossip is making the rounds.

Do you see Sodium much nowadays?

Yes, we look back on a successful career together, but are not out of great ideas yet. Sodium completes me in a way that no other element does. Lately our reviews have not been great, but we are ready for a comeback. Sodium has been taking the blame for much that seemed wrong with Salt, but without it everything would be bland. Our contribution to food has been legendary, something acknowledged even by our harshest critics. At this point I would like to plug a new venture of mine. I got involved with Sugar, and discovered that my remix of their classic work is even sweeter than the original, and I even prevent any nutritional effect. Our joint offering sucralose is now available in stores.

Let’s get back to your solo career — what are your feelings about that?

When I was younger I felt it necessary to gain recognition for my work as Dichlorine, in elemental form I cannot use my naiveté as an excuse. I was not that young back then, Scheele discovered me in 1774, but yearning for recognition of my great oxidizing potential. For the first time there was enough electricity to produce me in large quantities. When I was approached by Fritz Haber in 1915, I did not have the backbone to say no. His wife Clara — also a chemist — committed suicide in protest, but it was no deterrent. I am not proud of being used as a poison gas and my role as lethal irritant, including my involvement part of phosgene and mustard gas. The ability of humans to invent new ways of involving me should serve a better purpose. As it turned out, a spinoff of mustard gas ended up being the first chemotherapy drug after WWII. I gained a new level of insight and am much happier to play a small but important part in drug development, and am honored to be part of leukemia treatment. True, much of my other work as parts solvents and anesthetics did not pan out as planned at the time, because of liver toxicity.

What would you say to your greatest critics?

They have to face it: I am unavoidable in life. I am in the earth crust, and the third most abundant element in sea water. I am indispensable in the production of plastics, and while many would like to live using less plastic, I am personally convinced that PVC sewer pipes save more lives than are lost due to the effect of phthalates (which I am not involved with). I too am aware of my useful contributions to humanity over the last millennia, and am not afraid of hiding my involvement with the darker sides. Don't give chemicals a bad name. Think of me next time you jump in a pool.

Simone Bauer has a doctorate in chemistry, was born and raised in (West) Berlin, lived for the last eight years in NYC, and just moved to Cambridge, MA.

Image by concept w, via Shutterstock

101 Comments / Post A Comment


I love this. I love you.


whoa, thanks for introducing us to clara immerwahr--i had never heard of her before. such a sad story.


@dotcommie Oh my gosh and Ignaz Semmelweis.

Emma Peel

@itmakesmewonder There was an amazing Radiolab episode ("The Bad Show") about Fritz Haber and whether he was good or bad for humanity (because he also invented modern fertilizer, basically, and saved zillions of people from dying of starvation... but... the chorline gas!). Fascinating.


@Emma Peel Oh my god, yes. Driveway moment.


@Emma Peel That one made me a bit cross by the end. Because they were basically arguing about whether HE was bad or good, not whether his deeds were. Personally, I suspect he was kind of a dick, but that maybe his deeds came out about even, or a bit into the 'good' column. But only as a side effect of him thirsting for power and glory, so... I don't give him many props.

Ha, clearly that opinion's been festering away! It was definitely a good episode, everyone should go listen to it. But I get a bit cross about the way they don't define terms properly, on that show.


@itmakesmewonder Also, Ignaz Semmelweis! So upsetting!

Also a good case for 'we don't know why this works, but it does, so we're going to do it even though we can't explain it yet', which I feel is missing in a lot of modern life. I mean, I don't want to get all homeopathic about it, but I get cross at medical decisions made by people who get their power from white coats and science, but don't actually use evidence based medicine based on actual evidence that came out since they left med school.

This has been the 'Craftastrophies is cross at tangentially related things' thread.

The Lady of Shalott

Dear Chlorine, I am so glad to see that you are not going to deny the darker elements of your history.

What are your thoughts on being included in the famous Wilfred Owen poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est?" Are you proud to be associated with such a leading light? Or saddened that your connection is such a dismal one?


@The Lady of Shalott "Dulce et decorum est pro patria purgavi"


@The Lady of Shalott Fun fact: I once had to memorize and recite that poem for English class in High School. I still can do most of it on the spot.

Marquise de Morville

@The Lady of Shalott Chlorine did not know the poem yet, and feels both proud and saddened at the same time, but would like to thank you for linking to it.


@Ophelia I can do all of "In Flanders Fields" from 4th grade. My own memory of "Dulce et Decorum Est" comes from a Great War history class taught by a guy with a very cynical, dry sense of humor -- he perfectly captured the ennui of the pre-war era and the bleakness of the trench experience all in one.


@Xanthophyllippa Oh man. On Memorial Day this year, my boyfriend and I were in the car listening to the radio, and this guy called in to the station talking about Memorial Day when he was a boy, and then he started reciting Flander's Fields. ONLY HE RECITED IT WRONG. Completely wrong. He had the rhythm right and the first two lines, but, like, NOTHING else. He was just making shit up. So my gentleman and I, who both have it memorized, sat there looking at each other like, "Wait, what??" and the news anchor either had no idea or was too polite to interrupt. It was really bizarre.


purgatum fieri, maybe? purgari?


LOVE THIS. Chlorine has always been one of my favourite elements - the everyman of the halogens, if you will.

I'd love to see an interview with a noble gas. They're so mysterious!


@crookedlegs I'm waiting for an interview with an element with no stable isotopes and a really short half-life.

"So, Copernicium, what are you up to today?"
"Yeah, not too much. Gotta go--"


I do not have the words to adequately express how much I love this article and how much it fills me with joy.


@erinzyme I think your username says it all :).

Tragically Ludicrous

@erinzyme seriously. SO GREAT.


@erinzyme Agreed, I love this article AND your username (I'm an enzymologist!). Although I've got to admit, chlorine is pretty low on my list of beloved elements.


i love this SO much that i signed up for an account here only to say so. please, please, please do more it is wonderful.

Alexandra Martell

This post was sponsored by Jolie, right?


<3 you, Bleachie!

<3 you, Chlorie!


This is one of my favorite things ever published here. Everything about it.


One down, 117 to go.



"Part one in my 118-part series, 'Better Know an Element!' Today we have Chlorine with an atomic weight of 17. The fightin' 17th!"


@laurel I imagine the higher-numbered unstable elements using a Bjork voice


@itmakesmewonder Or Robyn! "Hallo. You must learn to [fill your outer electron shell] again!"


@laurel I hope there won't be any body snarking on the elements with, let's say, (whispering) a "higher atomic mass".


@LilyMarlene Back That Mass Up

Alibi Jones

@itmakesmewonder And some of the metals would be sort of formal, professorial types.

"So, Lead..."
"Plumbum, please."
"Right, excuse me, sorry."


@itmakesmewonder Isotope I can lose this weight. :_(


Sodium completes me in a way that no other element does.

HaHA! This was awesome! I'm in chemistry right now, and this article helped me to laugh at what is usually a subject that causes much despair (I am decidedly not chemistrally-inclined). Please do more of these!


I don't know about the straight-up element, but chlorine in pool cleaner form is my only allergy. As a kid, it made swimming barrels of fun. At day camp and sleepaway camp every summer, where swimming [lessons] are a mandatory activity, I came up with every excuse under the sun to stay out of the pool (stomachache, earache, fear of water, forgot my swimsuit, etc) save for the allergy thing because I didn't know it was one. The camp counselors never believed me and forced me in the pool anyway.


This is amazing. More please!


Chlorine, you are adorable!


Great article!! Would love to read more of these. As a general rule I'm not a big fan of chlorine, but mostly because of its involvement in chlorinated hydrocarbons. Those all tend to prove themselves fairly nasty. Good to be reminded of the benefits of chlorine as well, and that I ought not hold one element responsible for a compound's actions.


Ignaz Semmelweis! He was Kurt Vonnegut's hero, which makes him my great-hero, I think? Here is an excerpt from a speech Vonnegut made:

My hero is Ignaz Semmelweis. He was born in Budapest in 1818, and he lived for 47 years. He became an obstetrician, which should make him modern hero enough. He devoted his life to the health of babies and mothers. We could use more heroes like that. There is damn little caring for mothers or babies or old people or anybody physically or economically weak these days.

I have told you how new all this information we have is. It is so new that Louis Pasteur's idea that many diseases are caused by germs is only about 120 years old.

Ignaz Semmelweis also believed that germs could cause disease. He was horrified when he went to work for a maternity hospital in Vienna to find that one mother in 10 was dying of childbed fever there. They were poor people. Rich people still had their babies at home.

Semmelweis observed hospital routines and began to suspect that doctors were bringing the infection to the patients. He noticed that the doctors often went directly from dissecting corpses in the morgue to examining mothers in the maternity ward. He suggested, as an experiment, that the doctors wash their hands before touching the mothers. What could be more insulting? How dare he make such a suggestion to his social superiors? He was a nobody, you realize.

But all that dying went on and on and Semmelweis, having so far less sense about how to get along with others in this world than you anti I would have, kept asking colleagues to wash their hands. They at last agreed to do it, in a spirit of lampoonery, of satire, of scorn. How they must have lathered and lathered and scrubbed and scrubbed.

The dying stopped.

Imagine that: the dying stopped. He saved all those lives. Subsequently, it might be said that he has saved millions of lives---including, quite possibly, yours and mine.

What thanks did Semmelweis get from the leaders of his profession and Viennese society---guessers all? He was forced out of the hospital and out of Austria itself, whose people he had served so well. He finished his career in a provincial hospital in Hungary. There he gave up on humanity and on knowledge, and on himself. One day in the dissecting room, he took the blade of a scalpel with which he had been cutting up a corpse, and he stuck it on purpose into the palm of his hand. He died, as he knew he would, of blood poisoning soon afterward.

The guessers had had all the power. They had won again. Germs indeed!

The guessers revealed something else about themselves, too, which we should duly note: they aren't realty interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to, as, however ignorantly, their guessing goes on and on.


@cherrispryte It's crazy how new germ theory is. I like looking out for sickbed scenes in historical romance movies. You can always tell whether or not germ theory has hit.


@laurel Let's have a w00t for both germ theory and historically inclined viewers everywhere!


oh my gosh, the hairpin + my chosen métier... swoon. more please!


I do hope these interviews continue to appear periodically.


@atipofthehat Thank you for tabling that idea.


@atipofthehat The specificity of your request gives it some weight.


@atipofthehat I look forward to charting the progress.


@atipofthehat I like how you stay so positive where the modern trend is to enjoy things like this ionically.


@wharrgarbl It's awfully noble of him, isn't it?


Watch out guys, one errant mole can fuck up the whole operation.


Isotope you guys take my warnings series-ly.


Stop actinide this is a big joke.

Marquise de Morville

@camanda Maybe we should just Mendeleev it be?



It's all in how you spin it. What I'm hoping for is free and fair electrons.



Au, you guys. I am so late to this, no one inert or in heaven will read it.



I'm still waiting for the transuranic community to weigh in.


@atipofthehat Jeez Tip, enough with your complaining. Put a quark in it!



I thought we were boson buddies.

And here you are, acting like a hadron.



::: Gold star for the Au ! :::


@atipofthehat You're really plumbum-ing the depths, now.



The story of O goes back much further than Simone says.

Cavewomen wore ox-hides all the time.


@atipofthehat Yes, but they had to barium in dung first, to remove the hairs.



If they'd enlisted a sabre-toothed tiger, they could have used catalysis.


@atipofthehat O, but no one wants to lithium us boron about history.


Hairpin, I've loved you for a long long time. But this article takes it to the next level. Will you marry me?


Ooh gee, I hope I'm next!

(Or am I disqualified because of my illicit bond with a music machine?)


@HydrogenJukebox Well, that depends. Is the bond ionic or covalent?


@wee_ramekin !!


Oh, squiggles

So good. :) This article was a welcome addition to my day. Thanks go out to the author.


I'm upset this is making my sympathize with and admire chlorine. I am on Day 1 of "Quitting Smoking" (blargh) and one of the things I have been telling myself is "There is chlorine in cigarettes!".

It's basically just me scaring myself with chemicals, repeating "$12 per pack!" and "Girls think you smell gross like an ashtray." Now I'm down to 2 :(


@leon.saintjean Good luck, you can do it!


@leon.saintjean Leon! Good luck!!


@cuminafterall - Thank you! The worst part is really for everyone else having to deal with my incessant whining. For some reason I am the kind of person who can get trampled by a horse or 2nd degree burns from tomato sauce and shrug it off, but this?

This turns me into a complete baby. I am just whiny and cranky, and that's WITH both Step 1 patch & gum.


@leon.saintjean You can still use the harmful chemicals scare! Chlorine is certainly not the only thing tainting those gross things! Also, by bestie from college had to use both patch and gum to give it up as well. He took up running in small increments, now runs ver regularly and hasn't smoked a cigarette in a year a half. YOU CAN DO IT!!


@leon.saintjean YMMV but a couple of things that helped me mentally with quitting were 1) giving myself milestones in 3s "as a non-smoker": 3 minutes, 3 hours, 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, etc. and 2) telling myself that the beginning was like a really bad flu - i'd feel shit for 3 weeks & need help for that, but these were just symptoms of getting rid of a really crappy bug in my system and I had to let it run its course.

Other stuff for other stages, but that's what helped me at the start. Hang in there - it can be done.


@leon.saintjean Well, you aren't addicted to second degree burns from tomato sauce or horse trampling. (Or are you? If you are, seek help...)

So of course this is harder than those other two things.

Good luck. You can totally do it.


@leon.saintjean Have you seen this? http://www.cracked.com/article_19030_quitting-smoking-6-things-you-notice-about-stupid-world.html

This is the greatest piece on the 'pin yet. <3 u chlorine!


Haha, aww. Great!

(This is tangential, and I'm really trying to write this so I don't come across as a pompous asshole, but I love reading things written in English by people who grew up speaking another language! Even when they are fluent, there are usually little quirks in their use of language that make me smile. Unless English was your first language and you were just born and raised in Berlin, Simone--in which case I just enjoy the way you use English! I hope that someday I will become fluent enough in German, Spanish, or Portuguese that my language quirks will equally be seen as charming and not so much as broken pretend-fluency.)

Marquise de Morville

@figwiggin I am glad you enjoyed reading it! You guessed correctly that English is not my first language. I started learning British English in school but speak more like an American, so I often end up using an odd mixture of words (or Germanisms). I hope you get to live abroad in a country where your language of choice is spoken, I am sure even pretend-fluency will come across as charming.


Science! The Haiprin! LOVE!

(Confession time: this is my planner.)


@camanda Cool! That beats my period table mouse pad, though it does have precious metal units AND conversion factors and indicates preferred methods of analysis.

Alibi Jones

@camanda @bangs While we're confessing... I have the image on that planner as a giant jigsaw puzzle and it was *maddening*. I also have a kitchen apron with the periodic table on it, which makes me think of this.


I just started taking a chemistry class so this very relevant! In fact I should be studying instead of reading the Hairpin... but maybe this counts as extra credit?


@adriana Me too! I keep telling myself that making chemistry puns is better than reading about inventory equations.

This is probably why I am not very good at chemistry...



If you're taking Chemistry, be sure it's Organic. Otherwise there are too many chemicals in it.


@atipofthehat NiCe ONe.

german word, german word

OK, this was it: the post that made me register after a month-ish of lurking. So great! Also, Ignaz Semmelweis is going on my list of scientific figures to write songs about.


@german word, german word Can you call your song about Semmelweiss "German name, German name"?


LOVE. Also, while Semmelweis is a popular figure in history of science/medicine for obvious reasons, he's starting to draw more popular interest, too (obvs, as you can see in this post). I haven't read it, but this book might be of interest to folks who want to know more.


Dear Simon: Meet me at Finagle a Bagel and let's be friends.


This, it is my favorite. I know I'm late to the praise game - but the sentiment remains. I need more of this in my life. Also, a way to make friends with Simone...


Love! Can you imagine the life of Carbon, Or Helium? Not to mention the glamorous, yet complicated life of Gold.


Any relation to Chlorine Sicha?


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I know I'm late to the praise game - but the sentiment remains. I need more of this in my life. Also, a way to make friends with Simone... mountain house

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