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Reactions to Chlorine at Swimming Pools

By Barrett Barlowe

Swimming makes can make you feel great and miserable at the same time. Swimming pools need chemical treatment, often with chlorine, to prevent the spread of diseases, but you may worry about those chemicals in the water.

Pointing to the Real Culprits

Although swimmers assume that the presence of chlorine in the pool is causing them distress, the real culprits are the byproducts from the disinfection process, according to Mary Pohlman, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and U.S. Masters Swimming Sports Medicine Committee member. Adverse reactions experienced by swimmers point to inadequate pool maintenance and improper ventilation in indoor pools.

What Really Causes Burning Eyes

Symptoms of pool sensitivity vary. Common complaints include burning eyes, itchy skin and irritated nasal passages. Chlorine interacts with the ammonia from urine contamination to produce different types of chloramines. Dichloramine, typically produced from the interaction of chlorine and ammonia, has as pungent odor and causes eye and skin irritation in some swimmers. Nitrogen dichloride, another byproduct of chlorine’s interaction with ammonia, causes irritation of the lungs and nasal membranes.

What to Do

Maintaining proper pool balance is key to reducing swimming pool related allergic reactions. Water pH levels play an equally important role in swimmer comfort and disinfection. Ideal pH levels fall between 7.2 and 7.8. Higher pH levels inhibit chlorine's disinfection capabilities, and lower levels create a harsh environment for swimmers. Adequate chlorine levels also help prevent reactions as well as potential infection. Ironically, too little chlorine causes reactions more often than too much chlorine, according to Pohlman in "Swimmer "magazine, because free chlorine disables some byproduct irritants.

If you experience discomfort in indoor pools, you can avoid problems by switching facilities or swimming outside. Wearing nose clips can help, as does showering after workouts with specialized swimmer's soaps and shampoos.

The Disinfectant Role

Certain causal relationships between pool chemical reactions and asthma remain unclear. Lung irritation might occur as a result of swimmers inhaling chemicals hovering just above the water's surface. Investigations about the relationship between trihalomethane, another disinfection byproduct, and bladder cancer are inconclusive, according to the Environmental Health Perspectives website.

Balancing the Pros and Cons

Swimmers who suffer from the side effects of pool disinfection need to balance their love of swimming with the downsides. The risks for water-borne diseases in public pools are great, so until researchers find cheaper, more efficient and milder ways to disinfect water, chlorine remains the answer.

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