Summer has officially begun! Although, depending on where you live, it’s likely felt like summer for a while now. The heat takes on such different qualities - here in the Midwest, it’s humid, whereas when I lived in Arizona, the heat was very dry and likened to the dry heat of an over. Regardless of what type of heat you experience, I’m sure we can all agree on at least one thing to cool us off… water!
Beyond drinking ice-cold water, taking a jump into the pool is unequivocally the one way Americans love to cool off during the hotter months. Growing up, the first thing I always noticed about the pool was the strong bleach-like smell of chlorine. I can still smell those memories because that’s how staunchly pronounced the chlorine smell was in those pool settings.
So what exactly is that smell, and how does it affect us? Let’s dive in.
The Good and the Bad of Chlorine
Chlorine has been used to sanitize pool water in the U.S. since the early 1900s. That’s because pools that are not properly sanitized can harbor high amounts of microbes, including bacteria, parasites, and viruses. While chlorine is quite an effective sanitizing agent, it can produce negative consequences through inhalation like many other chemicals. Chlorine can negatively affect lung function, and multiple studies detail the effects of short-term and chronic exposure. In studies of frequent swimmers, chlorine exposure is associated with symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, coughing, sore throat, and headache.
What's the Deal With the Smell?
Have you ever walked into a space with an indoor pool to have the "smell of chlorine" hit you in the face? The strong smell associated with pools actually comes from a compound called chloramine. Chloramines are a combination of chlorine and ammonia and have been associated with irritation of the respiratory tree, especially in competitive swimmers. According to the CDC, when chlorine gas comes into contact with our eyes, throat, and lungs, it can cause damage to these tissues. Some studies highlight the possibility that chloramines and chlorine compounds can activate pro-inflammatory compounds in the lungs. Both acute and chronic exposure to chlorine can damage our airways and create lung injury, even deep into our alveoli.
But What if I'm Not a Swimmer?
Many studies discuss the negative association of high concentration chlorine exposure on the lungs, but what about a low-dose chlorine exposure? Literature demonstrates through murine models that even low-dose chlorine exposure creates inflammatory changes in the lung. Other studies discuss the possibility of short and intense exposures creating persistent respiratory symptoms. There are even occupational disease risks of chlorine. In one case study, occupational asthma occurred in two lifeguards and one swimming teacher following exposure to chloramines within indoor pool air.
How Can I Protect Myself?
The severity of possible respiratory damage from chlorine inhalation depends mainly on factors such as the concentration of chlorine in the air and the ventilation of the pool space. Chlorine pools typically have measuring systems that can track the amount of chlorine in the environment. If you plan on going for a swim this summer (and you should!), consider the following:
Ensuring the pool is maintained adequately and that there's a system to measure chlorine levels.
Consider trying a salt-water pool (it will still contain some chlorine, but the amounts will be significantly less).
Swim in a well-ventilated indoor area or consider an outdoor swimming pool.