This post may contain affiliate links. Read our disclosure here.
My family has been enjoying a few hours at the neighborhood swimming pool this summer. While swimming the other day, I noticed the pool maintenance guy adding a bucketful of chemicals to the water. My curiosity was piqued, and I started wondering about the chlorine used to disinfect pools. Can it affect our health? Is there a way to reduce its chlorinated pool health effects? Let’s keep summer fun and find out how to stay healthy in your chlorinated swimming pool.
Why sanitize a swimming pool?
Untreated water (including swimming pools, lakes, rivers, etc.) can house dozens of bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns us about Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs).
What is a RWI? It’s an illness you can contract from contaminated recreational water sources. This can includes gastrointestinal illnesses, rashes, respiratory illnesses, eye problems, etc. – but most cases result in diarrhea. Lakes and rivers manage themselves, but swimming pools and water parks rely on chemical treatment to kill pathogens. Chlorine, the most popular sanitization method, kills most germs in a timely manner, but some germs are more resistant than others.
How long will it take chlorine to kill contaminants?
E. coli (bacteria) – less than 1 minute
Hepatitis A (virus) – 16 minutes
Giardia (parasite) – 45 minutes
Cryptosporidium (parasite) – 15,300 minutes, about 10.6 days
Chlorine and Its Byproducts
Obviously, sanitizing the pool is a good idea to avoid illness, but is it safe? When you add chlorine to pool water, it changes. It reacts with all the dirt, germs, sweat, oils, bugs, people, etc. in the water and forms hundreds of chlorine byproducts. These byproducts merit some concern. Here are a few of the chlorine byproducts floating around your pool.
Chloramines – released as a gas, causes respiratory problems and linked to asthma.
Haloacetic Acid (HAA) – The EPA states that “people who drink water containing haloacetic acids in excess of the MCL [maximum contaminant level] over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.” You don’t have to drink the water to get HAA. Studies show that swimmers and pool workers who never even get in the water also absorb or inhale this chemical.
Trichloramine – formed when uric acid (urine) mixes with chlorine, present in the water and as a gas, irritates the lungs, causes breathing problems, and is genotoxic (damages your DNA, causes mutations, and increases risk of cancer)
Cyanogen chloride – named a toxic chemical in the US Chemical Weapons convention (making it a chemical warfare agent), affects the lungs, heart, and nervous system
Trihalomethanes (THM) – a group of chemicals that are considered toxic and mutagenic, known to increase cancer risk (group B carcinogen)
These chlorine byproducts are monitored by the EPA in drinking water, but they aren’t monitored in swimming pools. You don’t know how much of these byproducts are in your pool water, but we do know that more people equals more byproducts.
Consumers and scientists have been researching the safety of chlorine for decades. This is not a new question, and if you want all the details about it, you can find lot of excellent documentation. Don’t want to read a research paper? You’re in the right place. I’m going to try to sum it up for you. In short, chlorine itself isn’t dangerous, but its disinfectant byproducts can be.
The Bad News: Studies have linked chlorine exposure to some health problems including: breathing problems, genotoxic effects (DNA damage, cancer risk), asthma, bladder cancer, colorectal cancer, and accelerated aging. Exposure can occur by: breathing the chemicals in the air around the pool, swimming in the water, and accidental ingestion while swimming. One study showed that skin exposure while swimming was 94% of the cancer risk associated with THMs. How long does it take for these chemicals to get into our bodies? Across the board, several studies found chlorine byproducts in swimmers urine and breath after an hour or less of swimming! These disinfectant byproducts get into our bodies, quickly, and can do some damage.
The Good News: you can reduce your risk and still enjoy your summer, poolside!
Reduce Exposure: have a clean lake or ocean nearby? Skip the pool and head to the shore.
Reduce Inhalation: Indoor pools will have higher concentrations of chlorine byproduct gases. Choose an outdoor pool, if you have the choice.
Reduce Byproducts: Reduce the amount of “body dirt” (urine, hair, sweat, oils, etc.) that gets into the pool. Always shower before swimming, and don’t pee in the pool. Honestly, I always knew showering before swimming was encouraged, but I never knew why. Share your new-found knowledge with friends that won’t think you’re crazy (or already think you’re crazy). If everyone showered before swimming and stopped peeing in the pool (20% of people admit they pee in the pool, 70% are suspected to, and 100% of Olympic swimmers do), it would significantly reduce the byproducts in your swimming pool!
Remove Byproducts: Chlorine byproducts grab on to your skin and hair and hold on for dear life. You know that slightly slimy-yet-still-too-dry feeling your skin gets after swimming in a pool? That’s the byproducts building up on your skin. The dry swimmer’s hair? Chlorine byproducts, not chlorine. Regular showering and bathing won’t always remove these byproducts (and your shower water will even add more chlorine to the situation). To remove chlorine byproducts, use vitamin C! This super-vitamin will remove chlorine byproducts when used topically. Use a Vitamin C spray or rinse on your hair and skin before showering (recipe below).
Vitamin C Spray
Ingredients and Materials
-spray bottle or squirt bottle
-room temperature filtered or purified water
-vitamin c powder (I used Healthforce Truly Natural Vitamin C, but NOW makes a cheaper option, too)
Fill spray/squirt bottle with water, leaving a little room at the top. Add vitamin C powder, about 2 teaspoons per 8 oz of water. Shake and let vitamin C dissolve, shaking again as needed.
Spray on skin and hair after chlorine exposure. Wait about 5-10 seconds (that’s all it takes!) and then shower as usual.
Add vitamin C to your shampoo to help remove chlorine byproducts from hair.
Create a more concentrated solution and add a little bit of vitamin C to baths.
Any other creative ideas? Share them below!
Yes, chlorine in pools leads to the creation of some pretty gnarly chemicals that can increase cancer risks, breathing problems, and asthma. If you are an occasional swimmer, visiting the pool a couple times a week, you probably aren’t at risk.
Who might be at risk? Swimmers with consistent exposure, existing asthma or allergies, and small children (their skin is more absorptive) are more vulnerable. If you (or your kids) are involved in year-round swimming activities, I’d recommend reading more about the chlorine disinfectant byproducts and investing in some vitamin C.
Thankfully, chlorine is not the only sanitization option for pools. Pool owners can also use ionizers to kill germs, and saltwater pools are trending right now. [I’m not sure if saltwater pools are significantly better than chlorinated pools, since they simply breakdown salt into chlorine anyways. Anyone know?] What’s the best sanitization option? UV Systems. Some facilities are installing UV Pool Sanitizers to kill all pathogens instantly and without any disinfectant byproducts. These systems were used to sanitize the pools for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
What are your thoughts about swimming pools and chlorine? Will you make some Vitamin C spray? Start showering before swimming?
This is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.