Halogens - Real-life applications


Chlorine is a highly poisonous gas, greenish-yellow in color, with a sharp smell that induces choking in humans. Yet, it can combine with other elements to form compounds safe for human consumption. Most notable among these compounds is salt, which has been used as a food preservative since at least 3000 B.C.

Salt, of course, occurs in nature. By contrast, the first chlorine compound made by humans was probably hydrochloric acid, created by dissolving hydrogen chloride gas in water. The first scientist to work with hydrochloric acid was Persian physician and alchemist Rhazes (ar-Razi; c. 864-c. 935), one of the most outstanding scientific minds of the medieval period. Alchemists, who in some ways were the precursors of true chemists, believed that base metals such as iron could be turned into gold. Of course this is not possible, but alchemists in about 1200 did at least succeed in dissolving gold using a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids known as aqua regia.

The first modern scientist to work with chlorine was Swedish chemist Carl W. Scheele (1742-1786), who also discovered a number of other elements and compounds, including barium, manganese, oxygen, ammonia, and glycerin. However, Scheele, who isolated it in 1774, thought that chlorine was a compound; only in 1811 did English chemist Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) identify it as an element. Another chemist had suggested the name "halogen" for the alleged compound, but Davy suggested that it

(James A. Sugar/Corbis
. Reproduced by permission.)
be called chlorine instead, after the Greek word chloros , which indicates a sickly yellow color.


The dangers involved with chlorine have made it an effective substance to use against stains, plants, animals—and even human beings. Chlorine gas is highly irritating to the mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, and lungs, and it can be detected in air at a concentration of only 3 parts per million (ppm).

The concentrations of chlorine used against troops on both sides in World War I (beginning in 1915) was, of course, much higher. Thanks to the use of chlorine gas and other antipersonnel agents, one of the most chilling images to emerge from that conflict was of soldiers succumbing to poisonous gas. Yet just as it is harmful to humans, chlorine can be harmful to microbes, thus preserving human life. As early as 1801, it had been used in solutions as a disinfectant; in 1831, its use in hospitals made it effective as a weapon against a cholera epidemic that swept across Europe.

Another well-known use of chlorine is as a bleaching agent. Until 1785, when chlorine was first put to use as a bleach, the only way to get stains and unwanted colors out of textiles or paper was to expose them to sunlight, not always an effective method. By contrast, chlorine, still used as a bleach today, can be highly effective—a good reason not to use regular old-fashioned bleach on anything other than white clothing. (Since the 1980s, makers of bleaches have developed all-color versions to brighten and take out stains from clothing of other colors.)

Calcium hydrocholoride (CaOCl), both a bleaching powder and a disinfectant used in swimming pools, combines both the disinfectant and bleaching properties of chlorine. This and the others discussed here are just some of many, many compounds formed with the highly reactive element chlorine. Particularly notable—and controversial—are compounds involving chlorine and carbon.


Chlorine bonds well with organic substances, or those containing carbon. In a number of instances, chlorine becomes part of an organic polymer such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride), used for making synthetic pipe. Chlorine polymers are also applied in making synthetic rubber, or neoprene. Due to its resistance to heat, oxidation, and oils, neoprene is used in a number of automobile parts.

The bonding of chlorine with substances containing carbon has become increasingly controversial because of concerns over health and the environment, and in some cases chlorine-carbon compounds have been outlawed. Such was the fate of DDT, a pesticide soluble in fats and oils rather than in water. When it was discovered that DDT was carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, in humans and animals, its use in the United States was outlawed.

Other, less well-known, chlorine-related insecticides have likewise been banned due to their potential for harm to human life and the environment. Among these are chlorine-containing materials once used for dry cleaning. Also notable is the role of chlorine in chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which have been used in refrigerants such as Freon, and in propellants for aerosol sprays. CFCs tend to evaporate easily, and concerns over their effect on Earth's atmosphere have led to the phasing out of their use.


Fluorine has the distinction of being the most reactive of all the elements, with the highest electronegativity value on the periodic table. Because of this, it proved extremely difficult to isolate. Davy first identified it as an element, but was poisoned while trying unsuccessfully to decompose hydrogen fluoride. Two other chemists were also later poisoned in similar attempts, and one of them died as a result.

French chemist Edmond Fremy (1814-1894) very nearly succeeded in isolating fluorine, and though he failed to do so, he inspired his student Henri Moissan (1852-1907) to continue the project. One of the problems involved in isolating this highly reactive element was the fact that it tends to "attack" any container in which it is placed: most metals, for instance, will burst into flames in the presence of fluorine. Like the others before him, Moissan set about to isolate fluorine from hydrogen fluoride by means of electrolysis—the use of an electric current to cause a chemical reaction—but in doing so, he used a platinum-iridium alloy that resisted attacks by fluorine. In 1906, he received the Nobel Prize for his work, and his technique is still used today in modified form.


A pale green gas of low density, fluorine can combine with all elements except some of the noble gases. Even water will burn in the presence of this highly reactive substance. Fluorine is also highly toxic, and can cause severe burns on contact, yet it also exists in harmless compounds, primarily in the mineral known as fluorspar, or calcium fluoride. The latter gives off a fluorescent light (fluorescence is the term for a type of light not accompanied by heat), and fluorine was named for the mineral that is one of its principal "hosts".

Beginning in the 1600s, hydrofluoric acid was used for etching glass, and is still used for that purpose today in the manufacture of products such as light bulbs. The oil industry uses it as a catalyst—a substance that speeds along a chemical reaction—to increase the octane number in gasoline. Fluorine is also used in a polymer commonly known as Teflon, which provides a non-stick surface for frying pans and other cooking-related products.

Just as chlorine saw service in World War I, fluorine was enlisted in World War II to create a weapon far more terrifying than poison gas: the atomic bomb. Scientists working on the Manhattan Project, the United States' effort to develop the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, needed large quantities of the uranium-235 isotope. This they obtained in large part by diffusion of the compound uranium hexafluoride, which consists of molecules containing one uranium atom and six fluorine anions.


Long before World War II, health officials in the United States noticed that communities having high concentration of fluoride in their drinking water tended to suffer a much lower incidence of tooth decay. In some areas the concentration of fluoride in the water supply was high enough that it stained people's teeth; still, at the turn of the century—an era when dental hygiene as we know it today was still in its infancy—the prevention of tooth decay was an attractive prospect. Perhaps, officials surmised, it would be possible to introduce smaller concentrations of fluoride into community drinking water, with a resulting improvement in overall dental health.

After World War II, a number of municipalities around the United States undertook the fluoridation of their water supplies, using concentrations as low as 1 ppm. Within a few years, fluoridation became a hotly debated topic, with proponents pointing to the potential health benefits and opponents arguing from the standpoint of issues not directly involved in science. It was an invasion of personal liberty, they said, for governments to force citizens to drink water which had been supplemented with a foreign substance.

During the 1950s, in fact, fluoridation became associated in some circles with Communism—just another manifestation of a government trying to control its citizens. In later years, ironically, antifluoridation efforts became associated with groups on the political left rather than the right. By then, the argument no longer revolved around the issue of government power; instead the concern was for the health risks involved in introducing a substance lethal in large doses.

Fluoride had meanwhile gained application in toothpastes. Colgate took the lead, introducing "stannous fluoride" in 1955. Three years later, the company launched a memorable advertising campaign with commercials in which a little girl showed her mother a "report card" from the dentist and announced "Look, Ma! No cavities!" Within a few years, virtually all brands of toothpaste used fluoride; however, the use of fluoride in drinking water remained controversial.

As late as 1993, in fact, the issue of fluoridation remained heated enough to spawn a study by the U.S. National Research Council. The council found some improvement in dental health, but not as large as had been claimed by early proponents of fluoridation. Furthermore, this improvement could be explained by reference to a number of other factors, including fluoride in toothpastes and a generally heightened awareness of dental health among the U.S. populace.


Another controversial application of fluorine is its use, along with chlorine and carbon, in chlorofluorocarbons. As noted above, CFCs have been used in refrigerants and propellants; another application is as a blowing agent for polyurethane foam. This continued for several decades, but in the 1980s, environmentalists became concerned over depletion of the ozone layer high in Earth's atmosphere.

Unlike ordinary oxygen (O 2 ), ozone or O 3 is capable of absorbing ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, which would otherwise be harmful to human life. It is believed that CFCs catalyze the conversion of ozone to oxygen, and that this may explain the "ozone hole," which is particularly noticeable over the Antarctic in September and October.

As a result, a number of countries signed an agreement in 1996 to eliminate the manufacture of halocarbons, or substances containing halogens and carbon. Manufacturers in countries that signed this agreement, known as the Montreal Protocol, have developed CFC substitutes, most notably hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), CFC-like compounds also containing hydrogen atoms.

The ozone-layer question is far from settled, however. Critics argue that in fact the depletion of the ozone layer over Antarctica is a natural occurrence, which may explain why it only occurs at certain times of year. This may also explain why it happens primarily in Antarctica, far from any place where humans have been using CFCs. (Ozone depletion is far less significant in the Arctic, which is much closer to the population centers of the industrialized world.) In any case, natural sources, such as volcano eruptions, continue to add halogen compounds to the atmosphere.


Bromine is a foul-smelling reddish-brown liquid whose name is derived from a Greek word meaning "stink." With a boiling point much lower than that of water—137.84°F (58.8°C)—it readily transforms into a gas. Like other halogens, its vapors are highly irritating to the eyes and throat. It is found primarily in deposits of brine, a solution of salt and water. Among the most significant brine deposits are in Israel's Dead Sea, as well as in Arkansas and Michigan.

Credit for the isolation of bromine is usually given to French chemist Antoine-Jérôme Balard (1802-1876), though in fact German chemist Carl Löwig (1803-1890) actually isolated it first, in 1825. However, Balard, who published his results a year later, provided a much more detailed explanation of bromine's properties.

The first use of bromine actually predated both men by several millennia. To make their famous purple dyes, the Phoenicians used murex mollusks, which contained bromine. (Like the names of the halogens, the word "Phoenicians" is derived from Greek—in this case, a word meaning "red" or "purple," which referred to their dyes.) Today bromine is also used in dyes, and other modern uses include applications in pesticides, disinfectants, medicines, and flame retardants.

At one time, a compound containing bromine was widely used by the petroleum industry as an additive for gasoline containing lead. Ethylene dibromide reacts with the lead released by gasoline to form lead bromide (PbBr 2 ), referred to as a "scavenger," because it tends to clean the emissions of lead-containing gasoline. However, leaded gasoline was phased out during the late 1970s and early 1980s; as a result, demand for ethylene dibromide dropped considerably.


The name "halogen" is probably familiar to most people because of the term "halogen lamp." Used for automobile headlights, spotlights, and floodlights, the halogen lamp is much more effective than ordinary incandescent light. Incandescent "heat-producing" light was first developed in the 1870s and improved during the early part of the twentieth century with the replacement of carbon by tungsten as the principal material in the filament, the area that is heated.

Tungsten proved much more durable than carbon when heated, but it has a number of problems when combined with the gases in an incandescent bulb. As the light bulb continues to burn for a period of time, the tungsten filament begins to thin and will eventually break. At the same time, tungsten begins to accumulate on the surface of the bulb, dimming its light. However, by adding bromine and other halogens to the bulb's gas filling—thus making a halogen lamp—these problems are alleviated.

As tungsten evaporates from the filament, it combines with the halogen to form a gaseous compound that circulates within the bulb. Instead of depositing on the surface of the bulb, the compound remains a gas until it comes into contact with the filament and breaks down. It is then redeposited on the filament, and the halogen gas is free to combine with newly evaporated tungsten. Though a halogen bulb does eventually break down, it lasts much longer than an ordinary incandescent bulb and burns with a much brighter light. Also, because of the decreased tungsten deposits on the surface, it does not begin to dim as it nears the end of its life.


First isolated in 1811 from ashes of seaweed, iodine has a name derived from the Greek word meaning "violet-colored"—a reference to the fact it forms dark purple crystals. During the 1800s, iodine was obtained commercially from mines in Chile, but during the twentieth century wells of brine in Japan, Oklahoma, and Michigan have proven a better source.

Among the best-known properties of iodine is its importance in the human diet. The thyroid gland produces a growth-regulating hormone that contains iodine, and lack of iodine can cause a goiter, a swelling around the neck. Table salt does not naturally contain iodine; however, sodium chloride sold in stores usually contains about 0.01% sodium iodide, added by the manufacturer.

Iodine was once used in the development of photography: during the early days of photographic technology, the daguerreotype process used silver plates sensitized with iodine vapors. Iodine compounds are used today in chemical analysis and in synthesis of organic compounds.


Just as fluorine has the distinction of being the most reactive, astatine is the rarest of all the elements. Long after its existence was predicted, chemists still had no luck finding it in nature, and it was only created in 1940 by bombarding bismuth with alpha particles (positively charged helium nuclei). The newly isolated element was given a Greek name meaning "unstable."

Indeed, none of astatine's 20 known isotopes is stable, and the longest-lived has a half-life of only 8.3 hours. This has only added to the difficulties involved in learning about this strange element, and therefore it is difficult to say what applications, if any, astatine may have. The most promising area involves the use of astatine to treat a condition known as hyperthyroidism, related to an overly active thyroid gland.


"The Chemistry of the Halogens." Purdue University Department of Chemistry (Web site). <http://chemed.chem.purdue.edu/genchem/topicreview/bp/ch10/group7.html> (May 20, 2001).

"Halogens." Chemical Elements.com (Web site). <http://www.chemicalelements.com/groups/halogens.html> (May 20, 2001).

"Halogens." Corrosion Source (Web site). <http://www.corrosionsource.com/handbook/periodic/halogens.htm> (May 20, 2001).

"Halogens" (Web site). <http://registrar.ies.ncsu.edu/ol_2000/module6/halogen/halogen/htm> (May 20, 2001).

"The Halogens" (Web site). <http://www.nidlink.com/~jfromm/elements/halogen.htm> (May 20, 2001).

Knapp, Brian J. Chlorine, Fluorine, Bromine, and Iodine. Henley-on-Thames, England: Atlantic Europe, 1996.

Oxlade, Chris. Elements and Compounds. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2001.

Stwertka, Albert. A Guide to the Elements. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

"Visual Elements: Group VII—The Halogens" (Web site). <http://www.chemsoc.org/viselements/pages/data/intro_groupvii_data.html> (May 20, 2001).

Also read article about Halogens from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Michelle Hardy
Is working in the freezer making me sick? I have been working only 4 to 5 hours one day a week in stacking frozen food from the main freezer to store display freezers. Sometimes i notice a metal taste in my mouth whilst working. After a few hours my thyroid glands are swollen also glands behind my ears, I also feel unwell and sometimes dizzy. These systems can then last for 2 days leaving me exhausted. I take thyroxine sodium tablets Oroxine 75ug 1 per day. Is the freezer gases affecting my thyroid glands ?

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: