Photo by Matt Graves
Does the presence of chlorine in the swimming pool negate the need for urinary propriety?
In 1992, I was practicing with my college water polo team. The warm-ups were over, the drills complete, and we were onto game simulation exercises–transition offense, transition defense, man-up simulation, etc. (If all that’s gibberish to you, let me simplify: the rote stuff was out of the way, and the thinking part had begun). A teammate of mine swam to the edge of the pool and started pulling himself out of the water, which prompted our coach to ask him where the hell he thought he was going.
“Gotta take a piss, coach,” he said.
Coach held his hands and arms out like that was the most ludicrous thing he’d ever heard.
“I don’t think your teammates would begrudge you a leak in the shallow end so we can get some damned work done,” he puffed.
Can’t honestly remember if he took our coach up on the free pass to let loose, but I guess we wouldn’t have cared much if he did.
But should we have? Is peeing in the pool really that big of a deal?
What Does the Nose Know?
One thing not many people know about pool maintenance: when you get that really chlorine-y smell, it’s probably not because the pool has too much chlorine in it. It’s because the chlorine is working overtime and this is a pool you may want to avoid. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it, “a well-chlorinated pool has little odor. A strong chemical smell indicates a maintenance problem.”
Specific ill-effects on those near a chlorinated body of water that’s been over-urinated: stinging eyes, irritated nose, even a tough time breathing. Sweat/perspiration in pools is also a contributor to these symptoms, which is one of the reasons that many facilities require a shower before jumping in. But you’d think that incidental sweat is something less of a threat than the sudden voluminous infusion of a bladder going from full to empty.
And a fair amount of people –17 percent — have admitted that, sure, they’ve done it. Even more people — 78 percent — suspect that their fellow swimmers engage in this offensive behavior. In a recent survey, the Water Quality and Health Council found that almost half of respondents admitted to “unhygienic pool behavior.”
That’s what the chemicals are for. When pool managers routinely test the composition of the water, one of the prime measurements is called Free Available Chlorine, or FAC. This is the chlorine that has not yet reacted with anything nasty (urine, microalgae, microorganisms, etc) and stands at the ready to attack the same. (The pH level needs to be within a certain range as well, so that the chemical may find the nasty stuff, but let’s not go too far afield here). If you extrapolate: the more pollutants that get in the pool, the more the FAC levels go down. So if a pool staff is on top of its game, you’re probably safe from being exposed to the side effects of pee in the pool.
So, back to you and me. Sure, we really shouldn’t, but is it such a problem if we indulge? Or our kids have an accident? Seems that it’s really a matter of scale. Is the pool suffienciently well taken care of that you have the leeway to pee without posing a risk to others?
Use your head: a large, private gym pool, populated only by adult lap swimmers? Probably okay, since you’ll be one of the few jerks being unsanitary. A medium-sized pool frequented by recreational swimmers, especially youths? Enter at your own risk, and know that your relief may tip the scales in the irritating direction.
In our large, athlete-centric, well maintained pool, I’ll submit that Coach wasn’t putting us at a serious health risk with his unhygienic-yet-time-saving suggestion.
Chemicals Aren’t Enough
Since evidently common courtesy isn’t enough to combat juvenile accidents, overbearing coaches, and selfish, lazy schmucks, pool facilities and safety councils have taken many other steps. Like the aforementioned survey by the Water Quality and Health Council, which helps to educate the public. Or signs posted asking that patrons shower.
Or, most infamously, the blatant lie many of us were told by swim teachers, camp counselors, and lifeguards during our gullible youth. You know the one, that lie that scared you into visiting the bathroom about twice as much as you would have otherwise? Personally. my first lesson in fearmongering was that story that our yellow urine would morph into a big red cloud, quickly surrounding us and highlighting our shame, were we to ever let loose.
Indeed, it’s bullcrap. Though by the second time I’d accidentally let a little out during that summer at Boy Scout camp, I’d managed to figure it out myself (I figured the first time had been a fluke). And of course the more rebellious among us were probably hoping to make a scene.
In any case, it turns out that nobody needs to be afraid of a red cloud. But we should all beware a, err, brown cloud.
Really, the problem in pools isn’t pee-pee. It’s the other stuff. Poop, especially diarrhea.
Cryptosporidium, or Crypto for short (apologies to Superman’s dog) is one of the most prevalent water-borne illnesses in the United States. It’s spread through fecal matter, even trace amounts that you can’t see in a pool. Frighteningly, it’s resistant to chlorine. This is why you really, really need to beware accidentally swallowing pool water. It’s also why the CDC pleads that swimmers take a soapy shower before swimming, wash hands after bathroom usage or changing a diaper, and, most especially, don’t swim if you have diarrhea!
The CDC also warns that “the use of swim diapers and swim pants may give many parents and pool staff a false sense of security regarding fecal contamination.”
It’s quite an unpleasant affliction. There’s a range of symptoms, the best of which is just contracting a watery diarrhea yourself, the worst of which include vomiting, fever, nausea, and generally depressed immune functions, leaving you vulnerable to other diseases.
Going off the Deep End
Reading the above may encourage folks to avoid public or highly trafficked pools altogether. Good! You should be thinking about this stuff. No, it’s not tragic if someone pees in the water from time to time, but if there’s any suspicion of fecal matter creeping into the water, it’s best to leave that pool immediately, even if the staff seems diligent and the water seems clean and chlorinated.
And if you see a red cloud? Maybe those camp counselors were right after all.
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