Feature Article - November 2021
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So Fresh, So Clean

Keys for Improving Air and Water Quality in Indoor Pools

By Chris Gelbach

Better air and water quality is essential for the health and comfort of pool patrons. Studies have estimated that at least 50% of elite and competitive swimmers suffer from bronchial respiratory disorder and that the occurrence of asthma is higher among swimmers than nonaquatic endurance athletes. Chlorine and other pool chemicals are thought to be contributing factors.

Chlorine reacts with compounds in sweat, urine, stool and other substances called amines to form chloramines. In addition to problems for swimmers who spend a lot of time in the pool, these chemicals can result in symptoms like red, irritated eyes and dry skin and hair that can turn patrons off from swimming.

According to the CDC, if you smell "chlorine" in indoor pools, what you're actually smelling are the chloramine gases that result from chlorine reacting with pee, poop, sweat, dirt, skin cells, personal care products and other substances.

To minimize this, the CDC recommends that people:

  • Never swim or let kids swim with diarrhea.
  • Use the toilet before getting into the water.
  • Shower before getting into the water—rinsing off for one minute removes most of the dirt and substances from your body.
  • Wear a bathing cap while in the water.
  • Don't pee in the water.

The Battle to Change Behavior

Unfortunately, even some high-profile athletes like Michael Phelps have stated in the past that they pee in the pool, and that "chlorine kills it, so it's not bad."

Bob Kappel, channel manager of recreational water and life support systems for an international provider of aquatics water treatment and disinfection solutions, sees this as a common attitude among elite swimmers, and noted the example of a conversation among several Olympic Trials competitors.

"When I suggested to them that well, if you have to pee, just get out of the pool and pee, [my friend] looked at me and he said, 'Bob, that will not happen. I guarantee you that will never happen because we have a limited amount of time in the water. We have to swim as hard as we can for as long as we can during that given period. You don't want to cool down once we're doing our reps, and he goes, 'we're peeing in the pool, and that's not going to change.'"

While this attitude may be disgusting yet almost understandable for elite athletes, American pools have also accepted inferior attention to hygiene from recreational pool-goers than is the norm in European countries like Germany.

"It's ingrained in their psyche that before I get into a pool, I'm going to take the soapy shower, and that's just something that society understands and does," Kappel said. "We've gotten away from all this in the U.S. … some people want to jump into the pool after just exercising at the gym. So what we need to get across to people is the fact that a swimming pool is basically a community bathtub, and it's for everybody's good that we try to get into that bathtub as clean as we can."

The result of such efforts in Germany is that codes can call for much lower levels of chlorine because they have much lower levels of the organic load that contributes to chloramines coming off their bathers. "There's this system concept. If we got people cleaner going into the pool and not peeing in the pool, we could probably run lower chlorine levels, lower the pH a little bit, and then we can wind up with less chlorine in the water making their hair brittle and drying out your skin and maybe having chlorine reactions. And we would have better indoor air quality too," Kappel said.

According to Kevin Post, principal for the aquatic design firm Counsilman-Hunsaker, a lot of this comes down to enforcement. "I used to run a pool in Texas, and we spent more time enforcing the shower rule than anything else because everyone walked out of the bathrooms dry," Post said. "If facilities truly enforce this rule, then they would see—they don't realize how much they can help themselves by doing this."

Better communication can also be helpful. People may know that they are supposed to shower before entering the pool, but don't know why it's important. Like Phelps, they may see chlorine as a cure-all, when it isn't. And they may fail to realize that people can help themselves through better behaviors that ultimately reduce their chance of getting the dry eyes, dry skin and dry hair that cause many pool-goers discomfort.

Better design decisions can also facilitate better patron behavior in some respects. For example, Post's firm often makes the recommendation for deck showers—this makes it easier both to enforce shower rules and for users to take a quick rinse before entering the pool. "A lot of facilities will do a lot of deck showers. If you put 10 or 20 for the swim team, the swim team has no reason to not rinse off before they get in the pool," Post said.

Post noted that in addition to the chloramine-creating power of urine, sweat, lotions, detergents and other products people may be wearing, facility managers should also take care to use the right cleaning products in their facilities.

"A lot of cleaning products are ammonia-based or quaternary products, and those create chloramines as soon as they touch chlorine," Post said. "So if you use that product on your deck, every time somebody gets out of the pool that chlorine water is basically off gassing chloramines right from your deck. Same thing with using it in your locker rooms … There are bleach-based products that are more appropriate for chlorinated water."