One in five American adults admit to “peeing in the pool,” according to our 2009 survey. That news elicits a collective “Yuk!” from the public. Now, new research conducted by the China Agricultural University and Purdue University (Lian et. al, 2014) draws a direct connection between swimming pool urination and potential negative health effects for swimmers. The reasons to discourage peeing in the pool are adding up. Are swimmers listening?
The Problems with Peeing in the Pool
Most people correctly associate chlorine with pool chemical disinfection–destroying germs that can cause diarrhea, swimmer’s ear, and various types of skin and wound infections. There is no doubt that disinfectants, such as chlorine- and bromine-based products, UV, and ozone, help keep swimming pool water healthy and safe. Pool chemistry takes on a new level of complexity, however, when we add, of all things, swimmers.
Germs in Pee!
In addition to a chemical argument for not peeing in the pool, there is a biological one. Contrary to popular opinion, urine is not necessarily sterile. In fact, the urine of infected individuals can contain: norovirus; the parasitic worms that cause schistosomiasis; and the bacteria that causes leptospirosis, among other pathogens.
Swimmers introduce an assortment of organic chemicals to the pool, such as the compounds found in urine, perspiration, cosmetics and body oils. Many of these are nitrogen-based. When nitrogen-based organic compounds react with disinfectants, low levels of chemical byproducts are produced. These byproducts are the subject of much study. In some of the latest research, Lian et al. show that nitrogen-based organic compounds react with chlorine to form low levels of cyanogen chloride and trichloramine, compounds of potential health concern.
The researchers surmise that uric acid in pools, most of which originates from swimmer urination (the researchers call it “a voluntary action for most swimmers”), is a precursor to much of the cyanogen chloride present in pools. Cyanogen chloride potentially can affect the central nervous system, heart and lungs. Trichloramine is an irritant. Bottom line: peeing in the pool may be convenient, but it is not healthy.
Campaigns to End Peeing in the Pool
Public health and swimmer organizations are working hard to raise public awareness of the need for good swimmer hygiene. Notably, for the past several years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA Swimming and the National Swimming Pool Foundation, and our Water Quality & Health Council have been encouraging good swimmer hygiene. We think all swimming lessons should include a hygiene component that instructs students to:
- Use the toilet and shower before swimming
- Refrain from peeing in the pool
- Refrain from swimming when you have diarrhea
Teach them young, and they’ll remember.
Chris Wiant, M.P.H., Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Caring for Colorado Foundation. He is also chair of the Water Quality & Health Council.