Comments made by two Olympic swimmers stating that urinating in pools is acceptable has caused more debate in the aquatics and pool industries.
During the 2012 Olympics, U.S. superstars Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte not only admitted to urinating in pools during practice, but they said it was OK to do so.
“I think there’s just something about getting into chlorine water that you just automatically go,” Lochte stated during a radio interview with Ryan Seacrest. “[I didn’t] during the races, but I sure did in warm-up.”
Phelps agreed in a later interview with The Wall Street Journal, saying that during a two-hour practice, athletes weren’t going to leave the pool to go to the restroom. “We just go whenever we’re on the wall,” he said. “Chlorine kills it, so it’s not bad.”
Though the offhand comments were made during the course of larger interviews, they got so much attention from the press that Lochte was asked to make a satirical video for the comedy website Funny Or Die. In the mock profile piece, he claimed to urinate only in pools and — again, ironically — told children it was OK to do, but not to defecate.
Sense About Science , a London-based charitable trust, produces a report each year that addresses scientific claims made by celebrities. Last month, the organization released the paper, which included a comment about Lochte’s and Phelps’ claim.
The report stated that urinating in the pool is safe, not because of the presence of chlorine or other sanitizers, but because urine is mostly composed of salts and water with some protein and DNA breakdown products mixed in, making it basically sterile.
“Peeing in a swimming pool, even if all swimmers do it simultaneously, has very little impact on the composition of the pool water itself,” said Stuart Jones, senior biochemist at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust in England’s Sussex County.
“An Olympic-size pool contains over 2 million liters of water, and a single urination is somewhere in the region of 0.2 liters. To have any significant effect on the overall composition of the pool water you’d need a serious amount of peeing,” Jones added.
But for industry professionals, the issue lay not with the contents of urine, but its place in pool chemistry. “Urine, like sweat, is an ammoniated compound. ... It may not have bacterial properties, but that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting the water chemistry,” said Frank Goldstein, president of Chesapeake Aquatic Consultants in Grasonville, Md.
On a strictly practical level, the ammonia in urine uses up chlorine more quickly. Affecting the pool experience more are chloramines, the byproduct formed when bodily fluids bind with chlorine, and can act as a respiratory and eye irritant to swimmers.
The service technician then has to treat the water to remove chloramines. “What tends to happen is, people raise their chlorine levels to compensate, and then we get these chlorine byproducts that we’re trying to avoid,” Goldstein said.
He also worries that telling swimmers, especially children, that it’s OK to urinate in pools or spas will lead them to take it to another level. “If you get kids peeing in the pool, what’s going to stop them from defecating?” he said. “You’re starting this trend of, ‘Well, it’s OK to do this part of your bodily functions, but not this part.’ I don’t think the average person is going to understand that there’s a difference, especially children.”
Another service technician has noticed over the years that pools with more children tend to require more chlorine, leading him to wonder if they are urinating in the pool and having an effect on the water chemistry.
Rather than making it acceptable to perform bodily functions in pools and spas, some proposed, more U.S. facilities should move in the direction of Europe, which requires swimmers to shower before entering the water.