The Truth About Chlorine “Pool Smell”: Clean or Caustic?

Do you know that chlorine “pool smell” that wafts over you before you can even see a public swimming pool?

This pungent smell of chlorine might bring up wonderful memories of swimming during summer break, but do you also remember the red eyes, irritated skin, disintegrated swimsuit and the fried hair ends? It turns out that “pool smell” and swimming-related irritation come from the same thing – not just chlorine alone – but combined chlorine, also known as chloramines.

Even though it may seem that the chlorine has done its job and any smell, itching or burning we experience is evidence of clean water – these are all actually signs that the pool is over chlorinated and full of toxic combined chlorine.

What causes “pool smell”?

Despite popular belief, “pool smell” and swimming-related irritation aren’t caused by chlorine: it’s the interaction between chlorine and organic material.

Our bodies carry organic material like sweat, hair products, lotions, skin oils and more along with us everywhere we go – regardless of how clean we look or feel. When swimmers jump in the pools their organic materials bind with the chlorine or bromine in the water and create disinfection byproducts (DBPs) and other types of combined chlorine. These byproducts are actually much more dangerous than the chlorine itself.

So if a swimming pool has a strong “pool smell” – even if it looks clean and clear – it can actually be a sign that it has dangerous combined chlorine created by the very same processes that we use to make water safer.

Are combined chlorine and DBPs bad?

DBPs and other types of combined chlorine are harmful to ingest, inhale and generally be exposed to. In addition to causing red eyes, irritated skin and “pool smell,” combined chlorine are linked to swimming-related health issues like Lifeguard Lung, asthma, allergies and other respiratory ailments.

Swimming instructors are over twice as likely to suffer from frequent sinusitis or a sore throat and over three times more likely to have chronic colds than other public pool employees that have less exposure to combined chlorine.

Any organic matter – including hair, skin, sweat, and dirt – can react with chlorine to create combined chlorine. Since health code requires that all commercial swimming facilities keep a minimal level of chlorine in the water, it’s virtually impossible to avoid some combined chlorine exposure in public pools. Many studies have pointed out the health risks associated with swimming in chlorinated water, and many are related to toxic DBPs and other types of combined chlorine.

How to prevent “pool smell” (and lower combined chlorine exposure)

The health risks of combined chlorine and DBP exposure in pools are real, but that doesn’t mean you have to compromise your health to swim. There are ways public pool operators and swimmers can reduce combined chlorine and DBP exposure, while still maintaining and swimming in a pool clean from bacteria, algae and other organisms.

As a swimmer, you can lower the amount of organic material you bring into the pool by showering before you enter the pool and teaching your children not to urinate in the water. However, the most effective way to avoid DBP and combined chlorine exposure is by choosing public pools that use more effective water sanitation systems than just chlorine or salt alone.

So which kinds of public pools should you swim at? Fortunately, the industry is changing to welcoming new sanitation technologies that improve pool water and air quality. A new hydroxyl-based advanced oxidation (AOP) sanitation method has shown industry-leading results in reducing and prevent DBPs and other combined chlorine, while also reducing the need for extra toxic pool chemicals.

In a third-party study, a YMCA swimming pool started using hydroxyl-based AOP sanitation and reduced the harmful DBP haloacetic acid (HAA) by 91.5 percent and trihalomethane (THM) by 84.8 percent. This provided a healthier, more enjoyable and fresher pool environment that both YMCA swimmers and employees can benefit from. 

Read the full DBP Removal case study here.

 

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Jessica joins the Clear Comfort team as a summer extern through the Colorado BioScience Institute's RET Program. She is currently a teacher at Bell Middle School in Golden Colorado and teaches a diverse curriculum in areas such as electrical and structural engineering, computer science, robotics, microcontrollers, 3D modeling and more.