[ELI5] What does Chlorine gas do in the body to cause harm?


What does the chemical do in the lungs that causes such harm?

In: 7

The most damaging thing it does is combine with water to create hypochlorous and hydrochloric acids. Tissue damage results. In the lungs, the damage affects the ability of the organ to transfer oxygen. which results in suffocation.

There is a property in chemistry called “electronegativity”, which is basically an atom’s desire to rip electrons away from other atoms. How atoms, and then molecules work in chemistry is largely based on their electrons, so losing an electron or two from an atom/molecule can totally change how it works.

Chlorine and elements like Florine, Iodine, Bromine, you’ll notice those elements are all in a column of the Periodic Table and that we use all those elements in first aid and sanitizing wounds, killing microbes in pool water or making cleaning chemicals at home, WHY? Because those elements really, reallly strongly want to RIP away electrons from anything they touch which damages those atoms/molecules. And broken molecules in a living thing = death.

So to answer your question Chlorine gas basically eats away and “breaks” your lungs if inhaled, or can burn your skin or any surface it touches. It does this by breaking down atoms/molecules like I explained above.

When chlorine gas interacts with water in any way, like the moisture in your lungs or on your eyes, it can dissociate and pull hydrogen atoms away from the water, forming a new hydrogen+chlorine molecule. Which is hydrochloric acid. And acid is not really good for the body, especially in sensitive places like the lungs and eyes.

If chlorine gas encounters water, a chemical reaction happens:

**chlorine + water –> hydrochloric acid**

Your body is full of water. The tissue lining you mouth, throat, and lungs is all wet. So if you breathe chlorine gas, it’s generating hydrochloric acid on-contact inside your airway. This causes acid burns. If this doesn’t kill you directly by blistering the tissue that’s supposed to be letting oxygen into your body, then it’s common for the liquid weeping blisters to basically drown you by filling the lungs with fluid. It’s…not a good way to go.

Oh and your eyes are wet too, so chlorine sears them with acid on contact as well.