Red Eye Take Warning – Our Strange, Cyclical Awareness of Pee in Pools

The news has been abuzz lately with a terrifying revelation: if you get red eye at the the pool, it’s not from the chlorine, it’s from urine. Or to put it more accurately, from the product of chlorine reacting with a chemical in the urine. In the water, chlorine easily reacts with uric acid, a chemical found in urine, and also in sweat, to form chloramines. It’s not surprising that this caught a lot of peoples’ eyes, especially since those product chemicals are linked to more than just eye irritation. But what’s really weird is what spurred this all on. It’s not a new study that finally proved this. It’s just the release of the CDC’s annual safe swimming guide and a survey from the National Swimming Pool Foundation. But this isn’t the first year the CDC mentioned this fact: an infographic from 2014’s Recreational Water Illness and Injury Prevention Week does and two different posters from 2013 do (the posters have had some slight tweaks, but the Internet Archive confirms they were there in 2013 and even 2012), and on a slightly related note, a poster from 2010 says that urine in the pool uses up the chlorine.

A young smiling boy is at the edge of a swimming pool, with goggles on his forehead.

My neighborhood swim coach probably could have convinced me to wear goggles a lot earlier if she told me it would have kept pee out of my eyes.

Here’s what I find even stranger. Last year there was a lot of publicity about a study suggesting the products of the chlorine-uric acid reaction might be linked to more severe harm than just red eye. But neither Bletchley, the leader of study, and none of the articles about it link the chemicals to red eye at all, or even mention urine’s role in red eye in the pool. Also, if you’re curious about the harm, but don’t want to read the articles, the conclusion is that it doesn’t even reach the dangerous limits for drinking water. According to The Atlantic, Bletchley is worried more that it might be easier for an event like a swimming competition to easily deplete the chlorine available for disinfecting a pool in only a short amount of time. This seems strange because it seems like a great time to bring up that eye irritation can be a decent personal marker for the quality of the pool as a way to empower people. If you’re at a pool and your eyes feel like they’re on fire or you’re hacking a lot without swallowing water, maybe that’s a good sign to tell the lifeguard they need to add more chlorine because most of it has probably formed chloramines by then.

Discussion of urine and red eye seems to phase in and out over time, and actually even the focus of whether its sweat or urine does too. In 2013, the same person from the CDC spoke with LiveScience and they mention that the pool smell and red eye is mainly caused by chloramines (and therefore urine and sweat), not chlorine. A piece from 2012 reacting to a radio host goes into detail on chloramines. During the 2012 Olympics, Huffington Post discussed the irritating effects of chloramines on your body, including red eye, and the depletion of chlorine for sterilization after many Olympic swimmers admitted to peeing in the pool. (Other pieces seem to ignore that this reaction happens and assume it’s fine since urine itself doesn’t have any compounds or microbes that would cause disease.) In 2009, CNN mentions that the chloramines cause both red eye and some respiratory irritation. The article is from around Memorial Day, suggesting it was just a typical awareness piece. Oh, and they also refer to a 2008 interview with Michael Phelps admitting that Olympians pee in the pool. The CDC also mentions chloramines as potential asthma triggers in poorly maintained and ventilated pools and as eye irritants in a web page and review study that year. In 2008, the same Purdue group published what seems like the first study to analyze these byproducts, because others had only looked at inorganic molecules. There the health concern is mainly about respiratory problems caused by poor indoor pool maintenance because these chemicals can start to build up. Nothing about red eye is mentioned there. In 2006, someone on the Straight Dope discussion boards refers to a recent local news article attributing red eye in the pool to chlorine bonding with pee or sweat. They ask whether or not that’s true. Someone on the board claims it’s actually because chlorine in the pool forms a small amount of hydrochloric acid that will always irritate your eyes. A later commenter links to a piece by Water Quality and Health Council pinning chloramine as the culprit. An article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation talks about how nitrogen from urine and sweat is responsible for that “chlorine smell” at pools, but doesn’t mention it causing irritation or just using up chlorine that could go to sterilizing the pool.

Finally, I just decided to look up the earliest mention possible by restricting Google searches to earlier dates. Here is an article from the Chicago Tribune in 1996.

There is no smell when chlorine is added to a clean pool. The smell comes as the chlorine attacks all the waste in the pool. (That garbage is known as “organic load” to pool experts.) So some chlorine is in the water just waiting for dirt to come by. Other chlorine is busy attaching to that dirt, making something called combined chlorine. “It’s the combined chlorine that burns a kid’s eyes and all that fun stuff,” says chemist Dave Kierzkowski of Laporte Water Technology and Biochem, a Milwaukee company that makes pool chemicals.

We’ve known about this for nearly 20 years! We just seem to forget. Often. I realize part of this is the seasonal nature of swimming, and so most news outlets will do a piece on being safe at pools every year. But even then, it seems like every few years people are surprised that it is not chlorine that stings your eyes, but the product of its reaction with waste in the water. I’m curious if I can find older things from LexisNexis or journal searches I can do at school. (Google results for sites older than 1996 don’t make much sense, because it seems like the crawler is picking up more recent related stories that happen to show up as suggestions on older pages.) Also, I’m just curious about the distinction between Bletchley’s tests and pool supplies that measure “combined chlorine” and chloramine, which is discussed in this 2001 article as causing red eye. I imagine his is more precise, but Bletchley also says people don’t measure it, and I wonder why.

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