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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Swimming in Bleach

Air Date: Week of

For health reasons, chlorine has been widely used in swimming pools for most of this century. Yet there are some alternatives to chlorine use, and some health professionals think consumers should weigh the benefits and advantages to decide which methods are best for them. Stephanie O’Neill reports from Los Angeles.


NUNLEY: Chlorine is a chemical that in most forms is considered highly caustic and dangerous. It's been linked to an array of health problems. Yet few of us think twice about diving into chlorinated swimming pools or about allowing our children to splash around in them. Many scientists say we're right not to worry, that the small amounts and the type of chlorine used in pools pose no threat to swimmers or the environment. But the concern about chlorine is leading many health advocates and pool owners to search for alternative sanitation systems. From Los Angeles Stephanie O'Neill has our report.

(Splashing and voices calling at a pool)

O'NEILL: The smell of chlorine hangs heavy in the air around southern California swimming pools, but there are few complaints from the swimmers, most of whom consider pools and chlorine as inseparable partners.

(Splashing and voices continue)

O'NEILL: But Paul Schwartz, national campaigns director for the Clean Water Action Foundation, a Washington, DC-based environmental group, disagrees, and says while chlorine played a vital public health role at the turn of the century, we have since learned of its dark side. For instance, he says, some studies associate drinking chlorinated water with bladder and rectal cancer. It's also been linked to disruption of our hormonal and neurological systems. The time has come, Mr. Schwartz says, to consider chlorine alternatives.

SCHWARTZ: There are very inexpensive or relatively inexpensive off the shelf technologies that have been in use around the world and in the United States for decades that we could be employing for our drinking water systems and in our pools.

O'NEILL: Among them, pool and spa sanitation systems that use ultraviolet light, ozone, or bromine as disinfectants. Paul Schwartz cites as anecdotal evidence of chorine's hazards and the safety of alternatives the experience of his colleague Mark Johnston, who is coach for the national championship Brown University swim team.

SCHWARTZ: He made the observation that you could see a sheen of chlorine gas across the top of the water's surface, and that 14 of his swimmers had to use the asthma medicine. That after they switched from chlorination to ozonation, that the number of swimmers who had to do that dropped from 14 to 4.

O'NEILL: An alternative pool sanitation method called the bromotron has proven more effective than chlorine for swimming pool owner Vic Hill of Kissimee, Florida. Mr. Hill says both he and his family liked the bromotron better.

HILL: The water stayed crystal clear all winter, and I literally didn't even look at it. When we had the chlorine pools, their eyes were red; in a month the swimsuits were all faded out. That kind of stuff doesn't happen. We never have a smell. And the water is like, it just -- it doesn't have a chemical feel when you get in like it used to with chlorine.

O'NEILL: The bromotron system uses electrolysis and bromine to disinfect the pool. It costs about $1,500 to install. But its makers say within 2 years it pays itself off through saved chemical costs, as bromine, a less volatile element than chlorine, stays in the water.

HILL: You test your pool once a week. You basically have the system running, as long as your electricity doesn't go off you're sanitizing your pool.

O'NEILL: Mike Robinson is CEO and president of Orlando-based Bromotron Water Systems.

ROBINSON: The great thing about bromine is it doesn't gas off. So you recycle the bromine over and over again.

O'NEILL: And according to Paul Schwartz of Clean Water Action, bromine does have another advantage over chlorine.

SCHWARTZ: Chlorine, although it's a great disinfectant for a lot of the microbes or bugs that are in the water supply, doesn't kill some of the new emerging deadly viruses and parasites like the parasite cryptosporidium.

O'NEILL: In Milwaukee in 1993, an outbreak of cryptosporidium in the drinking water supply caused 100 deaths and tens of thousands of others to become ill with severe diarrhea and dehydration. One of the first known outbreaks happened in the 1980s, in a public swimming pool in Los Angeles. Pools are considered a major transmitter of the parasite.

KEBAJIAN: Had a 100,000-gallon pool, and there was one fecal accident.

O'NEILL: Richard Kebajian is head of the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services' Recreational Heath Program.

KEBAJIAN: There was about 70 people that came down with it, severe diarrhea, and it was all attributed to that one case. So it is possible to get quite a few people sick from one fecal accident.

O'NEILL: Mr. Kebajian says reported cases of cryptosporidium are on the rise. However, he's quick to add that while cryptosporidium is generally resistant to chlorine, it can be controlled by closing the contaminated pool and shocking it with high doses of chlorine. Further, he says, much of the concern about chlorine is overblown.

KEBAJIAN: I think at this time the best economic, safe, and effective method of taking care of pools, of disinfecting pools, would be using chlorine. And I don't really see any problem with chlorine if it's used properly, if it's used in a proper manner.

O'NEILL: Mr. Kebajian remains skeptical that any substitute, any bromine, will take chlorine's place. But Paul Schwartz of the Clean Water Action Foundation says ultimately the decision belongs to consumers, whom he says shouldn't panic but should become educated about chlorine.

SCHWARTZ: I really would encourage folks to consider the alternatives and to take a careful look at what we've been doing, and know that there are other means and mechanisms to take care of the potential problems of infectious diseases being spread in our pools.

(Pool splashes and voices calling)

O'NEILL: For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.



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