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by Christel Swasey

Can Swimming Pools Expose Swimmers to Heath Problems?

My daughter’s on her high school swim team.

She always smells like chlorine, even after a shower, and even after a few days out of the water, over the weekend.  I wasn’t worried about it at first.

I even liked the smell of chlorine; it reminded me of summery poolside vacations, just like coconut-scented sunscreen does.

But then my daughter told me that she and many of the other swim team members were coughing a lot after practice, and sometimes she felt it was hard to breathe, harder than it should be during a workout.

I started to research the question of what overchorination can do to people.  And wow– there’s a lot to worry about.

Smelling like chlorine or getting asthma-like symptoms are only the beginning.  Some studies are finding that potentially dangerous markers appear in the bodies of swimmers, markers that can develop into cancer.  These occur in people who swim often in heavily chlorinated pools.  And the harder the workout, the more toxic substances get into the bodies of the swimmers.

An article on the WebMD website, for example, cites as study showing that people have a chemical called HAA in their bodies after swimming in chlorinated pools.  This by-product of chlorine, called haloacetic acid, shows up in swimmers’ urine within 30 minutes of a swim.  And although the EPA limits allowable HAA levels in drinking water (high amounts may be linked to birth defects and cancer), there is no regulation of HAA levels in swimming pools.

Note to self:  we are not supposed to be drinking the pool water!  We are not supposed to be urinating in the water!   Why?  Because sweat and urine are two chemical compounds that react with chlorine to create toxic byproducts.

HAA exposures occur not only as a result of swallowing pool water, but also by inhalation or being absorbed through the skin.

What can we do?

  •  Always shower before getting into a pool
  •  Never urinate in a pool
  •  Never drink pool water
  • Keep your mouth closed when you swim

There are alternatives to using chlorine to disinfect swimming pools, too.  Even if pools continue to use chlorine, there are ways to reduce how much of it they use.  Emptying and cleaning the pool regularly can help.

Another option is UV treatment, which uses short-wave ultraviolet light that has a photo-oxidation effect that destroys chloramines and other toxic by-products of chlorine. This is done without adding chemicals to the water. Much less chlorine needs to be used to control bacterial growth.

A Discovery Channel article cited the use of ozone, copper and silver ions or even moss to kill bacteria. Moss was the most intriguing pool-cleaning option I found.

Sphagnum moss acts to inhibit the growth of microbes in the pool, according to Creative Water Solutions founder David Knighton. The moss absorbs heavy metals, including iron, which encourages microbial growth. Without iron in the water, microbes can not grow.  And moss also prevents growth of mats of bacteria that stick to pool surfaces and coat the insides of pipes.

So, I contacted my daughter’s swim coach, all worried and hopeful that he had a solution.

He did.

He said our school board has just approved the installation of a UV treatment over spring break.  So my daughter and her swim team will be swimming in greatly reduced amounts of chlorine, very soon.


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