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That Public Pool Is Really Effing Nasty—and Disinfectants Could Actually Make it Worse

Pools and hot tubs are brimming with harmful substances, says new study.

Yesterday, May 23, marked the start of Healthy and Safe Swimming Week—seven days during which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages swimmers and soakers to protect themselves from getting sick or hurt in pools and hot tubs. Sound like something only children and parents should worry about? It's not. 

Nearly 80 percent of public swimming pools and hot tubs inspected in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, and Texas—these states have the most public swimming facilities—in 2013 had health or safety violations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week in a press release. (This 2013 study is the latest data.) The violations were so bad the pools were closed, effective immediately. The misdemeanors include too little disinfectant (i.e. chlorine) and inadequate safety equipment to prevent drowning, the CDC explained. 

The irony, though, is new research from the American Chemical Society found the more disinfectants are used in hot tubs and swimming pools, the more potentially harmful these facilities become. Yeah, that public pool is looking more like a cesspool and less like an oasis.

In the study, published in ACS' Environmental Science & Technology, researchers sampled water from both public and private hot tubs and pools after normal and intense use. They identified more than 100 disinfection byproducts in the water. Now, disinfectants, in theory, should be beneficial in water; they kill pathogens after all. But things get a little murky when you throw in several people (not literally). 

Disinfectants react with sweat, urine, and other chemical additives used to maintain "clear" water. The resulting "disinfection byproducts" have been shown to cause genetic damage to cells in lab tests.

So, researchers tested extracts of the samples in order to determine their potential harm. On average, pool and hot tub samples were 2.4 and 4.1 times more "mutagenic," meaning they alter your DNA in some capacity, respectively, than the original tap water used to fill them.

It's not just a little skin sensitivity or red, irritated eyes. Research found people who swim or work in and around pools have higher rates of respiratory problems and bladder cancer. 

We're not trying to be alarmist, or crush your pool-side summer plans—especially if you're landlocked or stuck in a major city. Here's what you can do: To reduce your risk as a swimmer, the researchers recommend you shower before and after stepping into a pool or hot tub. And if you own a pool or hot tub, take extra care cleaning it and change the water more frequently. 

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