Dr. Michael Beach is the Associate Director of the CDC’s Healthy Water, National Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Infectious Diseases. He has stated, “Chlorine binds with all the things it’s trying to kill from your bodies, and it forms these chemical irritants. That’s what’s stinging your eyes, the chlorine binding to urine and sweat.” This chemical reaction produces cyanogen chloride (CNCl) and trichloramine (NCl3) that are important disinfection byproducts in swimming pools – but irritating to skin and eyes.
This report in no way surprises or shocks me. Hence, my long-standing revulsion about all public pools and hot tubs. For the most part, I do everything possible to stay out of them – or limit my time in them if I actually indulge – and bathe quickly after exiting. I have often referred to public swimming holes as a human stew – or human soup.
Yes, bathing in urine is a distasteful thought. However, as most all urine is sterile (it is 100% sterile in healthy people), the perception of pee in the pool is far worse than the reality. That’s good news. Other substances found in public bathing spots can be far worse; e-coli, pus, tissue eating bacteria, suntan products, deodorants/antiperspirants, hairspray, cosmetics of all sorts, hormone creams, digestive enzymes from the mouths of spitters, toe fungus and athlete’s foot, and the whole gamut of bodily excretions. Think about all the stuff that oozes from a human body and you’ll understand the true depth of my concern.
The addition of chlorine kills most of the living organic creatures, but not all of them. As in the case of urine PLUS chlorine, the end product can be far more harmful than either of them alone.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that you:
- Shower before (and after) swimming.
- Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
- Take children on bathroom breaks or check diapers often.
- Don’t swim if you have diarrhea.
- Avoid swallowing pool water or even getting it in your mouth.
In the 1950s, swimming pools were a major source of polio infection. While polio is mostly a “thing of the past” today, public bathing still presents us with horrendous health consequences if we’re not aware and careful.
Alternatives to public swimming pools are oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams. But, they’re not completely free of danger either. In addition to chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, and drugs there are creatures who aren’t happy when humans invade their territories.
With some forethought and care you can enjoy water sports but heed the CDC guidelines, especially about bathing before and after. Clean water and plain soap remain our friends.