What are the four most frightening words in the English language? “A new study revealed ...” My advice is to skip this column. Do not read it. Please do not read it. Go do the crossword puzzle. Wash your car. Balance your check book.
But if you must read it, here it goes. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, it isn’t. This year marks the 42nd anniversary of the release of the movie “Jaws,” which came out in 1975. “Jaws” scared me out of the water then. Now this new study renews that primordial fear. It’s been a lousy week for swimming. It was bad enough that Michael Phelps raced a fake computer-generated shark for “Shark Week.”
Water sports hit the proverbial bottom of the barrel with an excellent, nauseating article in the Wall Street Journal by Jo McGinty about a study done by Canadian researcher Lindsay Blackstock. Blackstock’s study determined the amount of pee in public swimming pools and hot tubs. I told you not to read this column. It’s not too late to turn the page. The truth is out there, and it’s yucky.
Blackstock studied 31 swimming pools in Canada. Everyone knows Canadians are much tidier than Americans, so you can extrapolate that the contents of American swimming pools are much grosser than Canadian pools. Her study looked for the amount of an artificial sweetener called Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K) that shows up in pools. Ace-K is in thousands of foods and drinks. It is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar.
Ace-K is not absorbed by the body and ends up being excreted in urine. The urine containing Ace-K bonds with the chlorine in the pool. This reduces the ability of the chlorine to kill the pool cooties. The study showed that pool water had from 4 to 570 times the level of Ace-K that plain old tap water has. Where does the Ace-K in pools come from? It comes from people peeing in the pool.
There was a “South Park” episode in which a bunch of first-graders get into a swimming pool. They unleash a yellow tide that scares Kyle, Cartman and the rest of the third-graders out of the
pool. Unfortunately, art sometimes imitates life. It could be worse, though. In the greatest movie about golf ever made, “Caddy Shack,” someone drops a Baby Ruth candy bar in a pool. The music from “Jaws” plays as the Baby Ruth bobs on the surface of the pool and horrified swimmers struggle to get out while screaming, “Doodie in the pool!” Bill Murray puts on a Hazmat suit to remove it from the pool and realizes it is only a candy bar. Bill takes a bite out of the Baby Ruth as observers pass out in horror. A true American classic. But I digress.
According to the study’s calculations based on Ace-K, a 110,000-gallon pool typically contains 8 gallons of urine. Unfortunately, urine is not the only cootie in a swimming pool. Fecal material clings to the human body. The study estimates that an average adult carries 0.14 grams of hanging poo. The average child can have up to 10 grams of poo along for the swim. In a big water park which has 1,000 children playing in the water on a given day, the water could be packing up to 22 pounds of poo. The children put the poo in the pool. Human poo carries such delightful free swimmers as E. coli and Norovirus.
The problem for scientists is not having urine in the pool. Into every life, pool urine must fall. The Ace-K rains on the just and the unjust. The health-related issue is that the urine, Ace-K and chlorine bond into a weakened chlorine that is not nearly as good at killing germs as urine- free chlorine.
Urine and chlorine cause your eyes to turn red and your nose to run. You don’t have to be a scientist to know if your pool is overly contaminated with pee according to the study. Sniff it. A relatively urine-free pool doesn’t have much of an odor. If your pool smells strongly of chlorine that doesn’t mean it is a healthy pool. It means you are swimming with something other than the dolphins.
Kindly note that I totally resisted any mention of Russian hookers and presidential pee tapes in this column. I award myself a gold star for restraint. Swim at your own risk. The Ace-K is fine. Jump in.