Swimming Pool Myths Worth Correcting

Whether it’s for swimming lessons, swim meets, swim parties, water aerobics or just plain splashing around on hot day, your family will probably spend some significant time in a pool this summer.  As a research microbiologist specializing in water quality and public health safety, I’d like to correct four common swimming pool myths to help your family enjoy a “Healthy Pools” summer.

Myth #1:  The heavy chemical smell around the pool is a reminder that chlorine is present in the water for killing germs.

Fact: A properly disinfected swimming pool has no strong chemical smell, despite the presence of chlorine disinfectant to destroy germs.  That surprises most people.  In fact, the odor we notice around pools arises from the presence of chloramines in pool water.  Without turning this into a chemistry lesson, chloramines form when chlorine disinfectants react with contaminants brought into pools on the bodies of swimmers.  These contaminants include perspiration, urine, body oils and cosmetics.  Chloramines are irritants that can redden the eyes of swimmers and make their skin itchy.  Ironically, while many people think a pool chemical smell means there is too much chlorine in the water, more chlorine disinfectant may actually be needed to destroy the irritating chloramines.

Myth #2:  Chlorine in pool water turns your hair green.

Fact: Green hair is associated with swimming and blondes display this best, but don’t blame chlorine.  The green color comes from metals, such as copper, in the water, which are added to control algae or may be leached from pool plumbing and fixtures.   Now green hair looks good on some but here is a hint:  Wear a swim cap.  If you hate that idea, experts recommend a thorough hair-rinsing as soon as you leave the pool, followed by a gentle shampoo.

Myth #3:  Pool water is disinfected, so it’s alright if my children swallow some.

Fact: Teach your children to avoid getting pool water in their mouths.  Chlorine does kill waterborne germs, but chlorine levels fluctuate in pools, especially busy, crowded pools.  And germs are not equally susceptible to chlorine–some germs take longer to destroy than others.  Pool staff is responsible for keeping chlorine levels within an acceptable range, but, unfortunately, not all pools are carefully maintained.  It’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid swallowing pool water.  But if this sounds like rather passive advice, please read on.

Myth #4:  It’s up to only the pool operators to keep pools healthy.

Fact: There’s so much you can do, too!  To minimize irritating chloramines, shower before swimming and never pee in the pool.  Take young swimmers on frequent bathroom breaks and make sure they wash their hands.  Anyone with diarrhea must stay out of the water.  Learn to recognize the signs of a Healthy Pool, and notify pool staff if those signs are missing.  Finally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is encouraging swimmers to measure the pH and free chlorine level of pool water this year to make sure they are swimming in a Healthy Pool.  It’s a simple test done with a color-coded plastic strip, and you can even order a free test kit at www.healthypools.org/freeteststrips.  If you find unacceptable pool readings, inform pool staff, who should correct the pool chemistry.  If this does not happen, CDC recommends you notify your local public health department.  Finally, upload your results on the Healthy Pools site to see how your pool compares to others around the country.

Here’s to a great summer in only the healthiest of pools!

(Joan Rose, PhD, is the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and a member of the Water Quality and Health Council)