Let’s Stop Peeing in the Pool

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Photo Courtesy: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

By Katie Wingert, Swimming World College Intern.

Peeing in the pool is as natural for many of us as hitting streamline in a flip-turn or touching the wall with two hands in fly and breast. But according to recent studies, those harmless pee stops in between repeats could be negatively affecting your respiratory health for the long-term.

Caution: mini science lesson ahead. Take a deep breath (if you can).

According to a study from Purdue University, when the chlorine comes into contact with the uric acid in your urine, a byproduct of chlorine—chloramine—is created. There are three types of chloramines: monochloramine, dichloramine, and trichloramine. Monochloramines and dichloramines remain in the water. These chloramines cause the skin irritation and hair damage that is often identified as the stereotypical swimmer image. The effects of these chloramines can be combatted with products like SwimSpray, which neutralize the residual chlorine byproducts on your skin.

Trichloramines, however, are a trickier matter. Trichloramines become airborne and reside above the water’s surface, just where we are breathing. Swimmers, coaches, and lifeguards inhale trichloramines constantly in indoor pools, which naturally are not as well ventilated as outdoor pools. These trichloramines—what we smell when we say a pool “smells like chlorine”—are linked to chronic respiratory problems, such as asthma.

Competitive swimmers are more likely than athletes and non-athletes to be hypersensitive to inhaled irritants. According to a Finnish study by researchers from Helsinki University Hospital, that hypersensitivity indicates that swimmers’ airways are more irritated than those of other people. Additionally, swimmers are at a noticeably greater risk for asthma than other athletes and non-athletes.

Scientists in Europe, like those from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, have been researching this problem for years. It has taken Americans a bit longer to catch on to the problem. If you’re swimming in the United States, the odds are that you’re-a-peein’ (pun intended).

Not all of us know the science behind peeing in the pool, but almost all of us have an awareness of the effects. We joke about how you can find a pool from a mile away by following the smell. We tweet about “chlorine cough,” that raspy hacking that we hear as a barking chorus in the locker room. We line up a colorful array of inhalers on the pool deck as if medication is as necessary for our sport as snorkels and kickboards.

We need to stop going with the flow, both literally and figuratively. While the problems with indoor pool air quality are often systemic—ventilation systems that aren’t always adequate, or pool water that isn’t always treated properly—we swimmers have the power to make a change in the pool.

Change looks like finishing your warm-up and taking your stretched out bladder to the bathroom. Change looks like skipping the 30 seconds of grumbling with teammates about the main set and visiting your porcelain teammate, the John, instead. Change looks like celebrating the end of a long practice with a pee party in the bathroom stalls, instead of in your lanes.

We can do better, swimmers. Talk to your coaches. Talk to your teammates. Let’s stop peeing in the pool.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

11 comments

  1. avatar
    Momofswimmerwithasthma

    Thank you for writing this. I wish more pool operators and coaches took air quality more seriously.

  2. avatar

    Yeah, and let’s get them to STOP PUTTIT IN OUR DRINKING WATER, too!

  3. avatar
    Beth Nord

    So what is the difference between the chloramines that are created from the mix of chlorine and uric acid in urine and sweat and the chloramines that are already in the water when a local water district uses chloramine to disinfect the water? Can both situations be dangerous for swimmers?

    • avatar

      None, really. Supposedly when it’s in drinking water it’s only as monochloramine, which is bad enough. I don’t think it can be controlled to be monochloramine all the time. Plus, as I said, monochloramine is horrible- we documented 300+ people who came down with skin, respiratory and/or digestive symptoms (some life threatening) after the switch in my water district. This is where I first learned about it: http://www.chloramine.org.

      • avatar
        Beth Nord

        So why don’t at least some of these swimmers who have respiratory effects from the chloramine also have the terrible skin rashes that some of us have because of the chloramine.

  4. avatar
    Keith Benjamin

    Perhaps swimmers should stop perspiring as well.

  5. avatar
    Jim Lafferty

    The difference between the two sources is quantity and concentration.

    • avatar
      Beth Nord

      First, are the “two sources” you mention 1) the chloramine in the water that comes from the tap (which fills the swimming pools) and 2) chloramine formed from urine, etc?

      Could you be more specific as to quantity and concentration; perhaps with numbers?

      Thank you.

      • avatar
        Dave

        Sure thing.
        A 1M gallon olympic sized pool has a total of 8lbs of chloramines in the water when filled from the tap with a 1ppm chloramine concentration. Add 50 swimmers/day and say 70% pee 1 pint of urine, you have the potential for 35 lbs of additional chloramines added each day, which is cumulative until the chloramines are oxidized through superchlorination, ozone, ultraviolet or other means. It is a big problem especially with indoor pools in colder climates. Simply shower and pee before swimming and create a much healthier place to swim by minimizing chloramines in the water. This is a far better solution than attempting to treat the water or air after the problem is already reaching dangerous levels.

        I am afraid that well-intentioned regulations attempting to make us safer actually put us at much greater health risk when we changed over from well proven 100% pure chlorination that has been in place for 100 years to sodium hypochlorite/chloramine sanitization of our tap water. I would love to turn the clock back to when tap water tasted fresh and didn’t make us break out in a rash or worse.

      • avatar
        Momofswimmerwithasthma

        Is there a way to test for chloramine levels? What about chloramine gases?

  6. avatar
    Dan Smth

    The other part of the chemistry lesson is chlorine bonds very easily with all kinds of other molecules and atoms, so very very easy to produce nasty compounds.