While one in five Americans admits to peeing in the pool, according to a survey conducted by the Water Quality and Health Council, if former U.S. National Team swimmer Carly Geehr is to be believed that rate of underwater urination skyrockets among Olympians.
"Nearly 100 percent of elite competitive swimmers pee in the pool. Regularly. Some deny it, some proudly embrace it, but everyone does," Geehr said on the website Quora. Indeed, record-breaking Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps admits to regularly relieving himself while swimming.
"I'm sure I've swum directly behind people who were just letting it all out," Geehr added in the statement.
When mere mortals cop to pool peeing, one of the reasons it seems so offensive is that it violates a code of behavior -- to relieve oneself in the pool, around others, is truly antisocial. But given that the practice seems acceptable in the competitive swimming community ("Yeah. Peeing in the pool is commonplace. It doesn't even cross our minds," adds All-American Swimmer Dave Ford on the Quora conversation), is it really harmful?
Yes, according to epidemiologists. In a previous interview with HuffPost Healthy Living, Michele Hlavsa, an epidemiologist and chief of Healthy Swimming and Waterborne Disease Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained that pool pee really can cause a sanitation problem.
The nitrogen in urine binds to the chlorine present in pools -- the sanitizing chemical used to destroy pathogens like E. coli, salmonella and other bacteria people carry -- to create a different chemical, chloramine. That's a problem for two reasons. First, binding to the chlorine ties it up, so it becomes a less effective disinfectant. And that leaves way for dangerous bacteria to survive longer in each pool, which can spread common illnesses like diarrhea from chryptospiridium.
What's more, chloramine is irritating to many people, causing respiratory irritation, coughing and stinging, red eyes. Chloramine also creates a strong smell that many of us associate simply with pools. If you smell that "pool smell," according to Hlavsa, you're most likely smelling chloramine rather than chlorine. (It's important to note that the chloramine smell doesn't necessarily indicate that urine is in the pool -- sweat and some personal care projects also contain nitrogen. That's why many pools require a quick rinse before you dive in.)
Next time you're tempted to relieve yourself in the pool, think of your companions -- or competitors.
For more pool hazards and solutions, read on:
What's Swimmer's Ear Anyway?
This condition can refer to inflammation or infection of either the outer ear or the outer ear canal -- most often, it is simply an infection caused by swimming in contaminated water. Many bacteria, such as pseudomonas, can lead to an ear infection and are prevalent in water, according to the National Institutes of Health website. But swimmer's ear can also be caused by irritation to the layer of skin lining your ear canal -- most often caused by putting fingers, cotton swabs or something else too far into the ear canal. Ear pain, discharge from the ear (particularly if it is a strange color, thick like pus or foul smelling) or an itching sensation in the ear canal are all symptoms of swimmer's ear. Some people may even experience temporary hearing loss. As with any bacterial infection, oral antibiotics are the most common form of treatment. If the swimmer's ear is an inflammation or irritation rather than an infection, corticosteroids are the most common treatment, according to the NIH. Aside from steering clear of polluted water, you can avoid swimmer's ear by using earplugs, thoroughly drying your ears after a swim or even applying an alcohol-vinegar solution to the ears after a swim to prevent bacterial growth.
Will I Really Cramp After Eating?
This common wisdom was dismissed by many in the medical and safety communities. Waiting 30 minutes to an hour after eating to hop in the pool? Folklore. In fact, a 2005 New York <em>Times</em> article called it "<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/28/health/28real.html" target="_hplink">yet another old wives' tale</a> that should be laid to rest." The theory behind the precaution is that blood flow to the stomach increases after eating, which draws it away from muscles, causing immobilizing cramps that can cause drowning. But according to a 2011 study in the journal <em>Medicine, Science and the Law</em>, those who swim on a full stomach really <em>do</em> <a href="http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/231674.php" target="_hplink">have a higher drowning risk</a>. Researcher's from Tokyo Women's Medical University looked at data from 536 autopsies between April 2000 and December 2007. They split the autopsies into two categories: those in which solid food was visible in the stomach (a sign that a person had eaten recently) and those without any solid food. Among the 34 cases in which the deceased showed signs of having eaten recently, 79 percent had died of accidental drowning. What's more, it went both ways: nearly 80 percent of those who drowned accidentally had visible food residues in the stomach. These researchers theorized that the blood flow to the stomach following eating, in combination with the swim, caused light-headedness that made some people lose consciousness.
Is It Really Bad To Pee In The Pool?
Yes. While holding it until you find a toilet seems like a pretty basic courtesy, surveys consistently show that more of us are relieving ourselves in the pool. In fact, reported CNN, 17 percent of adults admitted to peeing in the pool -- <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2009-05-22/health/pools.urinate.hygiene_1_pool-water-michele-hlavsa-swimmers?_s=PM:HEALTH" target="_hplink">including one rather famous swimmer</a>, Michael Phelps. The problem with peeing in the pool is that the nitrogen in urine combines with the sanitizing chlorine to form a different chemical, chloramine. That does two things, according to Michele Hlavsa, epidemiologist and chief of Healthy Swimming and Waterborne Disease Prevention at the CDC. First, it ties up the chlorine, so it isn't doing its job of killing common pathogens like E. coli, salmonella and others. Secondly, it is a major irritant -- if you've experienced respiratory irritation, coughing or stinging red eyes, it could be caused by chloramines. Sweat and personal care products also contain nitrogen, and so rinsing off in a shower before getting into the pool is a good way to prevent creating chloramines. And how can you tell if urine's present? You don't need a special forensics team. According to Hlavsa, if the pool has a strong chemical smell, that's chloramine -- not chlorine. "A healthy pool doesn't smell," she says. But while we're on the subject of bathroom behavior, one in five adults admits to swimming while suffering from diarrhea. That's problematic because one common bacterium that causes diarrhea -- chryptospiridium -- is very chlorine tolerant, surviving up to ten days in a <em>well</em> chlorinated pool. "We overestimate what chlorine can kill, but it takes time for chlorine to disinfect -- there's a window of opportunity with each pathogen."
Why Are My Eyes Irritated?
If you're in a pool, you may be having a bout of "chemical conjunctivitis" -- a type of irritation caused by the chemicals used in many pools to keep things sanitized. You may be grateful for the dose of chlorine in the local watering hole (see previous slide), but it can also lead to irritation if administered with a heavy hand. On the flip side, <em>under</em> chlorinating can lead to eye irritation and infection, too, thanks to water-loving bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Follow their <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/pools/disinfection-team-chlorine-ph.html" target="_hplink">chlorinating guidelines</a> to ensure an optimal pH level, which helps the chlorine work properly to sanitize the water, for your eyes -- and the rest of you.
Can I Get Burned If I'm Underwater?
You absolutely can. "Sun rays penetrate the water surface, so it's really important to wear a long-lasting sunblock," says Gilchrist. As far as sun exposure goes, the real concern is the reflective surface of the water, which amplifies the sun's rays and can cause a burn for swimmers and boaters alike. For that reason, it's important to be especially vigilant about applying sunscreen and even wearing sunglasses.