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Swimming Pool Sanitation Techniques & Health Issues

Indoor swimming pools are more likely to trap noxious gases and chloramines in the surrounding environment which can lead to negative health consequences such as eye irritations, dermatitis, asthma, and even miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer.

     There's nothing quite like a dip in the pool on a hot summer day to cool you off. Temperature's high.  Humidity's high.  And, according to the weatherman's prediction, no relief in sight for the next several days.  Especially after a grueling day of yard work that could no longer be put off.   Or perhaps you just finished a round of golf or a baseball game.  Maybe even just sunbathing got your internal temperature soaring.  Not to worry.  A dip in the pool is just what the doctor ordered. Or is it?

     Chlorine is a popular sanitizer for pool water because it kills bacteria and germs.  It also oxidizes organic debris and helps to keep algae in check.  Unfortunately, chlorine is rapidly absorbed through the skin.  You can test this for yourself if you have a pool test kit.  Fill a small glass with chlorinated tap water or chlorinated pool water and test the chlorine content.  Now swish your finger in it for 15-20 seconds and retest.  Virtually no chlorine remains.  Children's skin is even more vulnerable as it absorbs toxins more quickly.

     Chlorine and its byproducts negative health effects are determined by multiple variables.  Overly chlorinated pools will of course cause more negative chlorine effects than a pool that is properly balanced. Absorption of chlorine occurs from breathing pool water vapors, swallowing pool water or skin contact with pool water.  One of the main variables would be time spent in the pool. Although an occasional dip in the backyard pool is most likely harmless in a well balanced pool; those who spend more time in commercial pools, especially swimming athletes, are more susceptible to health issues.  Anything from red eyes and skin irritations to miscarriages, birth defects and cancer are being blamed on chlorine these days. But chlorine itself isn't the only culprit.

     An under chlorinated pool is releasing toxic gases into the air.  That overwhelming smell of chlorine isn't what you think it is.  When a pool smells strongly of chlorine it's a reaction of the chlorine with bacteria, urine, sweat, and fecal contaminants, which creates chloramines and releases other noxious gases at the surface of the water.  Leaves and other organic materials that fall into an outdoor pool over burden the sanitation system as well.  It actually means the pool is exceptionally dirty and needs to be rebalanced.  This is achieved through mega dosing of chlorine, shocking, ionizers, and repeated testing.  A perfectly balanced pool is odorless.  Toxic gases are released when a pool is out of balance and can cause eye and respiratory irritations, dermatitis, and even eventually asthma after repeated exposure.  Not to mention Giardia, E. Coli, and Cryptosporodium are just some of the parasites that spread rapidly in pools with low pH levels and insufficient chlorine to sanitize the water.  Symptoms of these illnesses include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, dehydration and stomach cramps.

     Another factor to consider is the number of people in the pool.  An over crowded pool is is a heavy burden on the amount of chlorine or other sanitizing methods employed.  The more organic and inorganic debris brought into the pool, the quicker the sanitizing set up becomes over burdened.  So if you see a pool that seems overcrowded, you should probably avoid it.  A commercial pool that doesn't require showering before entry is bringing in unnecessary contaminants such as lotions, hair spray, perfumes, deodorants, and additional sweat.  Of course, an outdoor pool on a sunny day can expect a heavy load of suntan lotions. 

     So the level of chlorine dosing is important, but another huge variable is whether or not the pool is located indoors or outdoors.  When a pool is located indoors, even those who never enter the pool are being exposed to these toxic gases.  Trapped indoors without adequate ventilation and low ceilings, pool attendants are at risk as well as those lounging around the pool.  High peaked ceilings are preferable to low ceilings which trap gases closer to the surface of the water.  Adequate ventilation systems should be employed at all times.  Children under the age of six become even more vulnerable when placed in the shallow areas of pools which are often times even hotter and more heavily polluted than larger ones.  The warmer the water, the more quickly the chlorine dissipates.  Also, children's areas are usually smaller; therefore, more likely to be overcrowded.  So an outdoor pool is an obvious choice for avoiding heavier concentrations of chloramines.

Indoor pools should provide adequate ventilation systems and keep doors and windows open to allow noxious gases and chloramines to escape from the pool areas.

     Bromine is another chemical sanitizer for pools.  Though similar to chlorine for sanitizing pool water, it is considerably more expensive than chlorine for obtaining the same results.  Nowadays, it is mostly used in spas because it takes longer to break down than chlorine in the higher water temperatures of hot tubs and has less of an odor.  Unfortunately, it is considered even more carcinogenic than chlorine.

     Saline or salt water pool sanitation has really moved to the forefront of pool sanitizing techniques. Perhaps it sounds natural or 'green'.  Whatever the reason, people are jumping on the bandwagon looking for salt solutions to eliminate chlorination.  The funny thing is, this process uses a chlorine generator or salt cell which utilizes electrolysis to break down the salt creating a chemical reaction which produces chlorine. So salt water pools are not chlorine free pools.  On the upside, the constant delivery of the salt in a well maintained and balanced pool eliminates harmful chloramines.  The downside is the initial cost, high maintenance, and expensive salt cell replacements.  Without careful maintenance, salt cells are easily damaged and too much salt can cause corrosion and damage to pools and improperly sealed cement and pavement.  Pool builders require liability wavers for salt corrosion damage.

     Ionizers are becoming a popular method for sanitizing pools and spas.  This method uses copper and/or silver to kill germs in pools.  Though it works well as a sanitizer you will still need an oxidizer against organic particulates such as chlorine or shock.  Also, unless kept perfectly balanced, the metals from the ionizer can stain the inside of the pool and accessories as well as plaster and cement.  They also have the disadvantage of contributing heavy metals into the environment during water exchanges and have been banned in some areas.

     Another popular method is the use of an ozonator.  Although useful as a sanitizer, they also cannot be used as a stand alone solution and are somewhat more expensive.  On the plus side, dramatically lower levels of chlorine are required, and chloramines are completely eliminated.  Some people claim the water has a crisper, brighter look to it. There are two types of ozone generators used in the pool industry.  UV in which ultraviolet light is used to create ozone; or CD which uses corona discharge or electricity, much like a thunderstorm, to create ozone.  The CD ozone generators are preferable as they are much more powerful than UV types.

     UV treatment of pool water without creating ozone is becoming more popular, but is as yet cost prohibitive.  Depending upon the size of the pool a good UV pool unit can cost from just under a thousand dollars to as much as $3,500.  The use of chlorine is greatly reduced, and unlike chlorine alone, provides consistent oxidizing of organic materials as the UV light is continuously cleaning the water.  Small amounts of chlorine are still required for residual sanitation.  With chlorine alone, the levels swing up and down depending on how quickly the chlorine is used up before the next dose.  (Studies are being done in several countries on UV treatment combined with chlorine that may cause the release of an even more harmful gas, cyangen chloride or mustard gas.)

Indoor pools should provide adequate ventilation systems as well as high peaked roofs to reduce the risk of negative health impacts due to trapped noxious gases and chloramines at the pool water's surface.

Indoor pools should have high peaked ceilings to allow gases to rise higher away from the surface of the water to protect swimmers' and non swimmers' health.
     All of these methods of pool sanitation need researching when deciding upon building a pool.  They all have pros and cons.  Thoroughly researching all methods before deciding could save a lot of time and money, not to mention preventing some health issues.  But for those just looking to swim occasionally at your local pool there are just a few things to consider.  Is it an indoor or outdoor pool? Outdoor pools have the benefit of freely off-gassing into the atmosphere.  If it is indoors, can you still smell the chlorine 60 seconds after entering the building or do your eyes burn?  If the answer to either of these is yes at any pool, you should leave immediately, especially if you have young children with you.  Maybe a picnic would be better choice for today.  At least until you find a pool that is better maintained.  Or maybe even better yet...



  1. Chlorine on swimming pools, although a necessity for pool maintenance, can cause health hazard if not poured in its right amount. It helps to have professionals level the safety of a swimming pool’s chlorine dosage to ensure that it's safe to swim on. On our case, we have az pool service have our pool maintained twice a week or whenever necessary. It doesn't cost much to hire a professional if it means your family's safety.

  2. Great comment! Wish more pool owners were as conscientious as you.


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