Have you ever wondered what you’re swimming in when someone invites you to a pool party? I’ve always found it hard to turn down these weekend soirees. The weather is usually good, you enjoy cocktails talking to friends, and then a refreshing dip in the pool. Now, an eye-boggling report by Jennifer Clopton in the publication WebMD, shows there’s more lurking in the pool than you imagined.
The Doctor Game
Clopton reports that Indiana Health Officials had to close a water park when two children received chemical burns from chlorine in the water! This resulted when the chlorine equipment malfunctioned. At least this is a fixable problem.
But Clopton’s research also shows that fixing human behaviour poses a greater challenge. Her study shows that many people pee in pools.
Ernest Blatchley, an environmental engineer at Purdue University, agrees. He’s spent 20 years analyzing pool chemistry and claims the public finds it convenient to pee in pools. In fact, researchers estimate that, in a 220,000-gallon pool there can be 20 gallons of urine! If they knew this fact, how many friends would join me for a dip?
But how did researchers reach this conclusion? At the University of Alberta they collected samples of artificial sweetener, acesulfame potassium, from 31 different swimming pools and hot tubs. Lindsay Blackstock, who was involved in the study, says that the only way this sweetener could get into the water is by human pee.
Putting aside the displeasure of swimming in 20 gallons of urine, how risky is the dip? Blackstock says urine is not a major health risk factor. But urine and sweat can react with chlorine to create toxic compounds known as disinfection byproducts. This may trigger asthma in elite swimmers and respiratory and skin conditions in swimmers, lifeguards and pool workers. And it can also make you rub your eyes.
So what’s the chance of becoming ill from 20 gallons of pee? Like most medical situations it largely depends on the dose. The greater the exposure the greater the risk of infection.
What about the presence of fecal matter in pools? Poop is often present as it’s washed off the body during swimming. This can cause more trouble than urine because it contains germs such as cryptosporidium. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that swallowing a mouthful of this germ can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea, lasting for up to three weeks.
So it’s much like the game of Russian roulette when a hot spell takes you to a local pool. For instance, the CDC reports that when 50,000 swimming pools were inspected, 12% were immediately closed due to health violations!
This summer millions of people will enjoy a cool swim in a pool. The majority will side-step infection. But there’s a greater chance of emerging from a pool unscathed by using some commonsense hygiene.
If you own a pool, treat it with extreme care. Make sure it has the right amount of chlorine. Good sense also means that if you or a child has an infection you stay out of the pool. It’s also prudent to keep children in diapers out of pools. And try never to swallow a mouthful of pool water.
But why do people pee in pools? I’m not aware of any psychological study of this as it’s not the type of research that wins the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
But I imagine a study would show that urinary convenience is a big factor. After all, why get out of the pool and traipse dripping wet into a friend’s bathroom? Besides, who will ever know who did it? The excuse list could go on and on.
This study proves there are more closet peeing people than we ever imagined. So be careful who’s invited to the next pool party. But saying this is easier said than done. After all, how do you spot a person who’s likely to pee in your pool? I have no idea. Maybe, the RCMP have a profile of what he or she would look like! Does anyone have any ideas? If you do, I’ll publish it!
— W. Gifford-Jones MD
Gifford-Jones is a pseudonym for a Harbourfront physician who writes a syndicated medical column.