For years, John Cohen has dedicated himself to meeting the needs of clients averse to using traditional sanitizers. As he reports in the first in a series of articles, his quest began with a narrow-minded 'expert' and has since pulled him toward a biologically inspired set of solutions.
By John Cohen
When I first became active in the pool industry back in the early 1970s, there was a lot of talk but almost no options when it came to "alternative sanitizers.” Manufacturers were looking into ionization, ozonation and any form of disinfecting chemistry that didn’t involve the use of chlorine.
I became interested in these possibilities and carried them to my clients -- and every one of them was interested. Some of them simply disliked chlorine for whatever reason; others wanted an alternative because they had either internal or external reactions to chlorine and wanted a different sanitizer choice – or would find a completely different way to spend their money, perhaps on a boat or a fancy car.
As we’ll explore in the text that follows in Part 1of this multi-article series on the subject, I had my own reasons for wanting to indulge my clients’ desire for a non-toxic approach to pool-water treatment. We’ll explore that background here, then move on next time to broader motivations for stepping away from conventional water treatments. Then, in Part 3, we’ll examine systems and components I’ve found to be most effective in making my toxin-resistant clients happy.
SETTING THE STAGE
When I was a child, my family often included visits to natural hot springs in our wilderness journeys. Since then, I’ve passed my love of these beautiful geothermal areas on to my children, who now take their friends to those same special places.
Back then, swimming in friends’ backyard pools would cause my hair to turn green and my eyes to burn. The odd thing was that this was accepted as the norm, and nobody (including me) ever focused on why this backyard experience was so different from anything I’d ever encountered in a lake, the ocean or those extraordinarily healthful hot springs.
Fast forward to a Western Pool & Spa Show I attended in the mid-1990s, where I remember an instructor saying, “Don’t think of a pool like the human body.”
That didn’t sit well with me. My oldest daughter, Napali, contracted a rare autoimmune disease when she was 13 in 1990. By the time she was 19, she had lost function in both kidneys and has survived through dialysis ever since. As part of the difficult process of understanding what was happening to her, I learned all I could about kidneys and came to appreciate the fact that they’re among the most advanced filtration systems on the planet.
As sophisticated as it is, kidney dialysis removes only about 10 percent of potassium and other inorganics compared to a healthy kidney. And it all started me thinking: Alongside my awareness of the healthful properties of hot springs and of my daughter’s failed kidneys as well as my familiarity with pool-water purification systems and the problems they have, my unvoiced response to the instructor’s pool show lecture was a frustrated, “Why the hell not?”
From that point on, I started looking at pool filtration as an evolving yet still archaic attempt to replicate key functional aspects of the human kidney – a flawed mirror of how the human body purifies its internal liquids. I began to perceive the clogging of a pool’s filter media and having pool gunk imbedded deep into the fabric of filter grids or cartridges or sand beds to the point they no longer function as being similar to the design and function (and possible failure) of the human kidney.
Since then, I’ve found other analogies: Scientists at the Scripps Institute, for example, were sstartled to find that, within our human circulation systems, atherosclerotic plaques internally actually generate ozone to attack cholesterol and other oxidation products. They also note that white blood cells, when stimulated by infection, produce hydrogen peroxide! These are the sorts of associations that demonstrate that the most economical sanitization formats on the planet will ultimately be revealed within our own cells – nothing wasted, everything used.
The micro-format purification systems that are operating within us are real and can serve as models for what we do with watershapes. In other words, the offhand comment made by the pool-instructor guy was complete and utter nonsense.
One more parallel, this one a bit more practical: Within our arteries, there is no wasted motion. For blood as with water in our pool-piping systems, efficient circulation with no unnecessary friction is the order of the day. So consider: There are 62,000 miles of blood vessels in our bodies, and there can be no red lights, no 90-degree plumbing turns, as our blood cells pass through our bodies to keep us supplied internally with oxygen. And so magnificent is our red blood cell design that they are not specifically dedicated to any particular organ – otherwise, there would be system-wide traffic jams with fatal consequences.
In addition, we can find these analogies beyond pools. Consider the work of visionary architects who recognize the fact that buildings are growing taller but that our transportation systems remain flat on the ground, fairly well trapped in two-dimensional space. They see the ensuing traffic and congestion and are exploring alternative ways of looking at how human beings move, think, acquire and interact.
Translating vision into action in this context calls on us to improve the world and augment a body of knowledge that reflects the best thinking of all centuries leading up to the present. To me, this is irresistible motivation: My desire to contribute to future pathways, future solutions, has led me to research, experiment and explore non-toxic approaches to pool water chemistry for more than 30 years.
To me, it was never acceptable to create a big, beautiful Tuscan-style poolscape or a giant rock-grotto pool if the net result would be having my clients, their families and friends jump into a chemical vat. On occasion, I’ve even reminded some of them that if we don’t take another approach, they’ll be swimming with something that was used as a World War I-vintage chemical weapon – not to mention the chemical foundation for DDT and Agent Orange.
That’s a harsh way to put it, but it’s startling truths of that kind that help my clients focus as I do and open themselves to thinking about other approaches.
And it’s not as though our industry hasn’t experienced changes in the way pool professionals think. Not long ago, pools were built with heat returns on the surface, small pipes, oversized pumps, single-point floor drains, high-voltage underwater lights, three-bar bond beams, no grounding systems and listless circulation systems. All those things are now totally uncool, and it’s my contention that toxin-based sanitizing systems should be next in line to fall out of favor.
As water-oriented professionals, it’s time for us to look at the way nature purifies, disinfects, and regenerates water in light of how the human body cleanses and purifies itself internally, using both to guide us in making our pool systems function safely in non-toxic ways. Physicists work with these sorts of analogies in developing computer chips and batteries that mimic the ways in which our brains work. Why not us?
If we examine the human-body analogy, for instance, and simply extend the observation that we each contain multiple filtering systems, multiple sanitizing systems, multiple intakes and multiple returns, it would represent a major evolution in the way we look at pool systems. To be sure, this would likely result installations that cost more up front, but the offsets in terms of health benefits and reduced chemical and energy consumption will ultimately balance things out.
A PERSONAL MISSION
I began my exploration of non-toxic water systems with hydrogen peroxide, ionization and ozonation – that is, the use of ultra-fine particles of copper, silver and zinc to disinfect water as it passes through the circulation system along with contact-only ultraviolet disinfection (this was well before corona-discharge systems were available in the pool marketplace) and the oxidizing capacity of hydrogen peroxide.
It made sense to me because ionization is the foundation of the way the sun works, with the sun in turn activating our genes and sustaining human life through countless generations. From my perspective, I saw this macro-phenomenon as an endorsement of the micro-phenomenon I was working with in my clients’ pools. It looked like the right path -- and it helped that I had a client who had suffered with psoriasis for 40 years and found total relief through bathing in ozonated water.
But there’s an important distinction here: Open bodies of water are vastly active in biological and physical terms, but enclosed swimming pools (and human bodies) require much more precise approaches to purification. In the human body, for example, it’s about working with vast quantities of oxidation agents, enzymes, endorphins, pH levels and hormones. In a pool, it’s about algae, protozoa, amoebas, low voltage mineral charges, oxidation, ultraviolet radiation and movement.
In recent years, just as probiotic compounds have been found to be helpful in sustaining the human cardiovascular system, we’re now seeing the use of “probiotic” pool enzymes that break down nitrates, microbes, bacteria, bio-sludge and oils. And these beneficial enzymes are tough, with some tracing their origins to combating the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska: They are stable and highly resistant to chemicals and extreme conditions, including freezing temperatures, high pH and moving saline water.
But not all recent technological introductions work in terms of non-toxicity: The emergence and popularity of saltwater pools, for instance, is problematic because chlorine is still the sanitizing agent (despite common misperceptions). What’s more, use of these systems can result in the destruction of soil microbes and of beneficial ecto- and endomycorrhizae bacteria – that is, in groundwater pollution – and in damage to just about every material used in pool construction because of salt’s caustic properties.
What I’m suggesting here is that the process of taking toxins out of pool systems is evolving and that there will be both bright, leafy branches and dead ends on the evolutionary tree. I would also like to suggest that common sense is involved as well. If you just bought a house with a pool, wouldn’t you immediately want to change the cartridge or filter media so you are not swimming in someone else’s bio-film or filtered waste?
Those biofilms can be nasty in a chlorine-treated pool, because free chlorine (HOCl/OCl-) reacts rapidly with the protective outer mucous layer of a biofilm. Consequently, free chlorine is depleted at the surface of the biofilm – and little or nothing is left to penetrate the biofilm and inactivate any bacteria it might contain. In addition, this process zaps any chlorine residual that might be expected to remain in the circulation/distribution system.
The situation is even rougher with chlorine-treated spas. As Robert W. Lowry wrote in an April 2017 article in Aqua (“Spa Soup: Why We Dump Spa Water”), “The average person brings 100 million bacteria into the water. These join other living organisms such as biofilm, parasites, virus, algae, mold, mildew and spores. Then we add swimmer waste such as blood, sweat and tears, urine, saliva, mucous and other bodily fluids. Finishing the soup are the man-made products that dissolve off the skin and hair, including creams, oils and lotion, soap, deodorants, makeup, hair products, perfumes and more.”
He goes on to report that “the average spa user sweats up to three pints per hour at 102 degrees Fahrenheit” and notes finally that “The water will also have what are called xenobiotics. This is a catchall term used to describe all the other things that don't fit into a category, and includes household cleaners such multipurpose cleaners, window and countertop cleaners and so on.” And then there are all of the pharmaceutically active compounds and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
It’s a toxin-laced swamp, and it’s one we need to clear as an industry and move beyond with all deliberate speed.
TOWARD SAFE WATER
I could go on with reports of other scary chemical and biological guests that gain access to pool water, but you get my point: Whether it’s dioxanes, hexavalent chromium, Teflon byproducts, excessive fluoride or lead, if it is in any way avoidable, controllable and/or removable, there’s much to be said about the value of pursuing methods and technologies that will make pool water safe, trouble-free and a source of collective pleasure rather than of collective concern.
My own experience and research convinces me that I do not want to operate in a situation in which something in the water I leave behind for my clients might cause them harm and bring me heartache on anything approximating the level I experienced through my daughter’s illness. If any of our clients are subjected to having their immune systems compromised or damaged through immersion in the bodies of water we create, that’s too many – and we need to rally and do everything in our power to find alternative approaches that work.
In the next article in this series, I’ll dig more deeply into what I’ve learned through the years and how I’ve translated those concepts into what I consider to be better approaches to pool system design related to water treatment. Believe me, it’s been quite a ride.
John Cohen is owner and founder of Green Pastures Group, a watershaping and landscape-design firm based in Topanga, Calif. Cohen’s career began in working with his father, planting trees and installing landscapes for upscale properties and public spaces in southern California. He founded his own firm in 1975 and has since won a range of awards and appeared on episodes of design-oriented television shows, including “Backyard Nation” on The Learning Channel. Mostly self-taught, Cohen also studied Chinese gardening at UCLA. A pioneer in the field of non-toxic water-treatment systems, his projects include highly stylized and distinctive watershapes and landscape compositions for upscale clients throughout southern and central California, including the Beverley Hills Hotel. His work has also appeared on the cover of Architectural Digest.