Nothing says summer like a quick dip in the pool. Of course, if you’re at all concerned about your health, you might be better off staying poolside. Pools are breeding grounds for bacteria, and even with proper chlorination, they can present some substantial risks for swimmers. Here are a few disgusting facts that might scare you away from pools for the foreseeable future.
1. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), public pools are responsible for 10 to 20 outbreaks per year.
Those outbreaks include bacterial diseases caused by organisms like E. coli and serious illnesses caused by parasites like Cryptosporidium. Cryptosporidium (often abbreviated as “crypto”) is particularly problematic, as evidenced by the fact that the CDC affords the disease its own database. In 2016 alone, the CDC recorded crypto outbreaks in Arizona, Alabama, and Ohio. Conditions are just about perfect for major crypto outbreaks in 2017, according to an alarming CDC report. Fortunately, swimmers can avoid the parasite. Here’s how. “Protect yourself from getting sick by not swallowing the water in which you swim,” said Michele Hlavsa, chief of the CDC’s Healthy Swimming Program. Well, that’s really helpful. At least the vast majority of public pools are safe, right?
2. A shocking number of public pools aren’t safe.
Ideally, pools should have a free chlorine level of 1 to 3 mg/L and a pH of 7.2 to 7.8. At these levels, problematic bacteria have trouble surviving. Unfortunately, various contaminants can make chlorine less effective, and without rigorous maintenance, public pools quickly fall behind. In 2010, the CDC reported that 1 in 8 public pools were shut down due to safety issues, based on 120,000 inspections carried out in 2008. Granted, this wasn’t restricted to dirty water; some pools simply didn’t have the required staff or safety equipment (not exactly comforting). “We definitely need to focus on improving pool operations,” said Hlavsa, once again providing profound insight.
3. That “clean” chlorine smell is actually something else.
Well, your local pool is different, right? After all, you can smell the chlorine from the moment you arrive. That must mean that the cleaning crew is doing their job. “Many people think that when a pool smells of chlorine, that means that it’s clean,” said Mary Ostrowski, director of the Chlorine Issues at the American Chemistry Council, to Life’s Little Mysteries. “But that smell is actually chloramines, a substance that results from a mix of chlorine and bacteria, urine and sweat.” Ideally, a pool should be odorless, but this isn’t really possible at public pools. If the chlorine smell is extremely strong, steer clear; there’s a good chance that the chloramines are powerful enough to cause skin irritation and other issues. You can take your own testing strips to the pool, if you don’t mind looking paranoid. There’s more bad news, however: Some organisms, such as the aforementioned cryptosporidium parasites, are capable of living for days in chlorinated water.
4. Oh, and too much chlorine is also a bad thing.
Let’s say you manage to find a pool that consistently keeps its chlorine levels perfect. Plus, every swimmer is compelled to shower before getting into the water. You’re in the clear, right? Not quite. Several studies have shown that chlorine can raise swimmers’ chances of asthma and allergies. As it turns out, chlorine isn’t too great for our bodies, although you’re probably in the clear if you only visit the pool on occasion. Oh, and this likely applies to outdoor pools as well, according to a 2008 study published in the European Respiratory Journal. “Outdoor chlorinated swimming pool attendance is associated with higher risks of asthma, airways inflammation and some respiratory allergies,” the study’s authors wrote. “Hypochlorous acid [chlorine] generates a mixture of harmful breakdown products, which includes potent irritants, such as chloramines, haloacetic acids or haloacetonitriles.” In other words, the chlorine in pools can effectively address some problems, but it can also create significant respiratory issues with prolonged exposure.
5. Yes, people pee in the pool.
We doubt that we’re surprising anyone with this revelation. However, the scale of the problem is pretty incredible; according to a survey from the Water Quality and Health Council, one in five Americans admits to the practice. That’s just the people willing to confess. By one estimate, a typical pool has about eight gallons of urine. Many people might not see this as a major issue, but as mentioned above, contaminants like urine make chlorine less effective. While urine itself is mostly harmless, it can substantially affect pool maintenance efforts. Plus, eww.
So what can you do to make pools less disgusting?
While we’ve painted a grim picture in this article, most pools are relatively safe. Bacteria is everywhere, after all, and you’re not exactly diving into a sewer when you head down to the public pool. To do your part, don’t bathe in the pool. By soaping up before you hit the pool, you’ll help to prevent pathogens from spreading. Don’t go swimming if you’ve been sick, and as Michele Hlavsa will tell you, don’t drink the water. Clean thoroughly after you leave the pool, and you should be fine. Oh, and try not to think about the pee thing.