What to know about potentially dangerous germs lurking in pools and hot tubs

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Just in time for summer fun, a new study has revealed some pretty disturbing research about the germs lurking in pools and hot tubs.

It’s probably not surprising to learn that pools can get pretty dirty, but according to the new study, there are some potentially-dangerous germs that stick around even after pools and hot tubs have been cleaned.

What to know about the germs lurking in pools

The new research, published in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science & Technology, explains that even when a pool or hot tub is cleaned, that process doesn’t create a completely germ-free environment.

Investigators say that while pool disinfectants — like chlorine and bromine — destroy pathogens (microscopic, toxic organisms that can cause diseases), when these cleaners are combined with other substances people bring into the pool, it creates other compounds known as disinfection byproducts.

“Disinfection byproducts (DBPs) form when disinfectants, like chlorine, bromine, or ozone, react with organic matter present in the water,” Susan Richardson, PhD, lead researcher and professor of chemistry at the University of South Carolina, told Yahoo Beauty. “The ‘not natural’ organic matter can include compounds present in urine (urea, uric acid, etc., along with pharmaceuticals that can be peed out), sweat (urea comes from sweat too), and also compounds arising from personal care products (such as sunscreen ingredients, lotions, hair products, cosmetics, etc.).” 

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What the study found

After testing water from both private and public hot tubs and pools, the researchers found more than 100 disinfection byproducts lurking in the water. And the samples they tested were between 2.4 and 4.1 times more mutagenic than the tap water originally used to fill the pools and hot tubs.

“We also found some DBPs that are unique to pools/spas that have not been found in drinking water before,” said Richardson. “Of course, most people aren’t drinking this water (although swimmers will ingest a little bit while swimming). The main routes of exposure to DBPs are from breathing them in, and some will go across the skin into your blood stream.” 

Since these substances are different from those in the water our bodies our used to, researchers say they can cause serious harm to our cells. In fact, studies have shown that these byproducts, formed when chlorinated water is mixed with microorganisms, human body fluids, cosmetics, and sunscreen and other chemicals, can actually increase the risk of cancer and respiratory issues. 

“More frequent colds, sore throat, phlegm, and red, itchy eyes have also been reported, as well as some skin problems,” said Richardson. 


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How to protect yourself

Researchers say the best way to prevent these types of health issues is by cleaning the facilities and changing the water more frequently. They also suggest encouraging swimmers to shower before getting into pools and hot tubs and to use toilets when needed.

Occasional trips to the pool likely won’t pose major health issues, but it’s always good to understand the potential risks and how to avoid any potentially dangerous situations. 

Here are some more tips for minimizing risks from parentingscience.com:

  • If you can smell the chlorine in the pool environment, there’s too much of it: That’s the rule of thumb offered by researchers Brent S. Rushall and Larry Weisenthal. Tell your local pool manager about your concerns.
  • If you frequently swim indoors, find a pool with good ventilation: That means avoiding pools that re-circulate air rather than replace it with fresh air. It also means avoiding pools in rooms with low ceilings.
  • Avoid swimming pools that don’t insist on cleanliness—including showers before swimming: When people wash with soap and water before entering the pool, they help minimize the generation of DBPs.
  • Tell kids not to pee or spit in the pool: It isn’t just gross—it contributes to the creation of DBPs.
  • Encourage your local pool manager to consider research-based alternatives to traditional chlorination: A combination treatment could be a safer option.
  • If you are responsible for a pool or hot tub, don’t skip the disinfection process.

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