The DBP “Tango” and Swimmer Hygiene Awareness

Swimming is appreciated the world over as a healthful, fun-filled activity.  That was a solid point of agreement among international swimming pool experts who gathered in Portugal last month for the Fourth International Conference on Swimming Pools and Spas.  The researchers also agreed on another point:  Swimmer hygiene education is badly needed to reduce pool contaminants.  Most swimmers don’t realize they have an effect on the quality of pool water.

The first responsibility of the pool manager is to provide swimmers with recreational water that is safe from pathogens.  For example, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the cause of painful swimmer’s ear infections, is obliterated in appropriately disinfected pool water.  By carefully maintaining pool disinfectant levels, most waterborne germs don’t stand a chance of infecting swimmers.

But disinfection is not without side effects:  An unintended consequence of chemical disinfection is the production of low levels of disinfection byproducts, also known as DBPs.  These are contaminants that may potentially cause health effects in swimmers, and are a subject of increasing research.  A common example of a DBP found in swimming pools is trichloramine.  It is the product of a chemical reaction between chlorine disinfectant and ammonia-containing substances introduced into pools by swimmers, such as body oils, lotions, saliva, perspiration, urine and feces.  Trichloramine is an eye and skin irritant with a pungent odor; it is the substance usually responsible for the red eyes and itchy skin that swimmers often mistakenly attribute to chlorine.  In fact, the harsh chemical odor of trichloramine is a sign of a poorly managed pool.

Researchers and public health officials predict that swimmers will play a more active role in reducing levels of trichloramine and other DBPs in pools when they understand their actions can make a difference.  In the case of DBP production, it helps to remember “it takes two to dance the ‘DBP tango’”:

Disinfectant + Bodily Substances → DBP Contaminants.

While pool managers cannot dispense with disinfectant without putting swimmers at risk, swimmers can shower away the substances that react with disinfectant to reduce the quality of pool water.  Families can take frequent bathroom breaks to avoid unfortunate “accidents.”  For their part, pool managers should ensure showers and toilets are accessible and in good working order.

I believe swimmer hygiene education should be included in all organized swim lessons and school health classes.  It’s time to raise awareness that swimmers are dancing partners in the “DBP tango.”

Chris Wiant, M.P.H., Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Caring for Colorado Foundation. He is also chair of the Water Quality & Health Council.