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Pee's in the Air

Blog art croppedBy Jim McCloskey

All of a sudden three weeks ago, the Internet caught fire with what seems to be its annual round of stories about urine in swimming pools.  As best I can tell, the story’s current incarnation began with a March 1 report on the Web site of National Public Radio about research conducted by a group of Canadian chemists:  These folks figured out that they could calculate the approximate volume of pee in a given pool by testing for the presence of an artificial sweetener carried in most urine.

In other words, what started as an interesting innovation in detection – the act of noodling out a way to use the presence of one thing to size up the presence of another, entirely unrelated thing that has proved difficult to measure – set the Web ablaze for days.  Before long, the more lurid points of the NPR report had sparked dozens and dozens of stories on radio, in print and on the web about how awful pool water must be.  I mean, holy crud!  Everyone’s swimming through seas of human waste!

I haven’t witnessed much by way of sober responses to this crush of information, so let me take a whack at it here.

First of all – and with an immediate stipulation that it is absolutely off our culture’s list of favorite quaffable liquids – there’s nothing all that terrible about urine.  So while I’ll be quick to mention that I’ve never tried it, there are those who claim that, taken internally, it’s a curative for all sorts of maladies, from odd skin conditions to certain issues with a range of internal organs.  Drink it, proponents say:  It’s good for you!

Second, while the chemists’ detection concept is interesting and might even be useful, it’s not a precision instrument.  The sweetener is an insoluble stand-in for urine and the study assumes a lot about how much of that sweetener is actually consumed and excreted by pool users.  So far as I can tell, those who developed the assessment don’t seem to be making claims any sharper than is allowed by a broad percentage of error.

Third, the volumes we’re dealing with serve to reduce the apparent ickiness.  After all, 20 gallons of urine in a 220,000 gallon pool, which is one result the chemists produced in a specific Canadian facility, represents a hugely diluted urine content.  (By my calculation, that works out to 0.0090 percent.)  

On March 7, the National Swimming Pool Foundation hit the four-alarm blaze with fire extinguishers, offering a run of recommendations for “improving water and air quality by reducing urine in pools.”  The press release went on to recommend regular bathroom breaks, signage and a range of other measures aimed at convincing pool users that peeing in a pool is gross.  (Amen to that, I say.)  

Let’s step back for a moment and consider how upsetting it is when a small piece of information – one that strikes close to home – hits the Internet and catches fire the way this one did.  As NSPF sanely put it, despite the fact that “one report suggests we should fear urine in the pool, people of all ages should continue to enjoy the wonder of water.  Immersion and water activity can reduce lower-back pain, blood pressure, and arthritis symptoms, and improve mental and physical health.  Recent science has shown that even the sight of water can improve one's mood.”  (Amen to all that, too.)

Truth is, we’ve all survived our experiences of public, commercial and residential pools despite the plentiful presence of urine.  Truth is, we’ve all been told since childhood that it’s not a good idea to drink pool water.  Truth is, urea can combine with chlorine in ineffectively treated pools to form disinfection byproducts that are truly nasty.  Truth is – and despite that last point – of all the environmental pollutants we encounter in our lifetimes, urine isn’t even on the radar.  

One final truth:  This was a minor, science-geek story blown out of proportion, probably because it let lots of thrill-seeking editors (present company excepted, of course) use the vaguely scandalous word “pee” in their headlines.

We’ve known forever that chemical agents in pool water react with chlorine to form chloramines and other undesirable compounds and have designed the water-treatment and air-handling systems of our aquatic facilities to minimize exposure to these substances.  Pee may be yucky, but well-maintained swimming pools are effectively safe in spite of our apparently ungovernable bladders.

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