Friends are always there for you. They look out for you, point out when you have got something wrong, and, whilst we all recognise that they can be irritating at times, they always provide a safe haven when things get hairy.
And so, half way through my time in Sierra Leone, as I think about blog post subjects and consider what I’ve seen and the thoughts and experiences that I’ve had, I find myself concluding that I need to dedicate an entire post to my protector and new best friend.
Chlorine is my bestie.
I have mentioned chlorine before. Specifically, I have mentioned how much chlorine solution we get through at the Ebola Treatment Centre. Quite literally, we get through a shed load. A huge, palette stacked shed in fact, full to bursting with chorine granules ready to spring into action and destroy Ebola before it causes any more problems than it already has. Tonnes and tonnes (at the last count it was just over 7 ½ tonnes in storage at the moment) of germ killing pellets primed and ready to turn into a trusted line of defence against…. well, against pretty much anything.
Chlorine, you see, destroys stuff. It doesn’t stop at killing viruses, but has also claimed as necessary sacrifices to the cause: watch-straps; hats; rubber door seals; taps; sprayers; a steady stream of goggles, and an awful lot of pens.
At the Ebola Treatment Centre we use 2 strengths of chlorine: Incredibly strong and nuclear. To give some perspective, consider the humble swimming pool. To keep a pool clean, levels of between 1 and 3 parts per million (ppm) need to be maintained. At the ETC we use solutions of 500 and 5000ppm. 500ppm is the woosy stuff that we wash our hands with on entering most rooms and after finishing doffing PPE. 5000ppm is used to wash our gloves whilst we are wearing PPE, to spray down and clean the PPE as it comes off, and for disinfecting anything in the Red Zone that might have a stray Ebola virus on it.
Chlorine is an element that has a reputation, even in its simple elemental gaseous state, for being nasty (chlorine gas was used as a weapon in the First World War). However, the nastiness of the gas stems from its ability to dissolve in water to form hypochorous acid and hydrochloric acid, neither of which are good for your lungs. At the ETC we have it as sodium hypochlorite, which is then dissolved in water to make a similar solution to that which would be made in your lungs were you to breath in the gas. Fortunately, it isn’t good for bacteria and viruses either. Its danger to living (and non-living) things stems from its ability to act as an oxidizing agent. Oxidation involves electrons moving from one chemical to the hypochlorite, changing the atoms (and thus damaging what they make up) in the process. The acids also cause direct and irreversible damage to cell walls, and build up inside some cells rendering them unable to function.
Fortunately, we do not have to deal with chlorine gas or even the characteristic chlorine swimming pool smell. Occasionally some of the hypochlorous acid can cause a little respiratory irritation, which makes you cough when you’re trying to take off your PPE, but it isn’t anything that doesn’t settle quickly enough. (Quick mention and thanks here to our environmental health team who make sure the chlorine is perfect.) The 5000ppm strength stings and burns if you get it on your hands (which you don’t), but the 500ppm is very friendly. Really, my relationship with chlorine is a happy one, which is just as well because we see a lot of each other, and I need it to stay safe.
Thanks Chlorine, you’re awesome.