How chlorine in swimming pools is giving children ASTHMA, leading expert warns
Why on earth are we still using chlorine in our swimming pools? Chlorine is a potent irritant for anyone who has eczema – which means that millions of Britons who suffer from this common skin condition are prevented from enjoying a pleasurable, healthy – and often very cheap – leisure activity.
What’s more, it’s actually potentially harmful – some studies have found that the chlorine used in pools can increase a youngster’s risk of asthma up to six-fold. Rates of hay fever and other types of allergies are also said to be increased.
Meanwhile scientists believe that commonly-found airborne chemicals, such as chlorine from pools and compounds found in cleaning products, could be behind the five-fold increase in inherited allergies during the past 50 years: exposure to these chemicals may be altering an unborn child’s immune system, leaving them more sensitive to conditions such as eczema, asthma and hay fever.
Chlorine is a potent irritant for anyone who has eczema. Millions of Britons who suffer from this skin condition
Babies may be at particular risk of asthma because their lungs are still developing and they tend to swallow irritant-laden water while swimming.
And a study of 50 elite athletes, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that almost all of the swimmers in the group had inflamed lung tissue, with those who spent the most time at the pool showing the most changes. Could this have been linked to their exposure to chlorine – since the toxic by-products of chlorine settle at surface level, just where they would be breathed in?
Admittedly, more research is needed on this potential link, but I know from my dermatology clinics there are many people who are unable to go swimming because chemicals in the water severely irritate their skin.
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Of course, if we want our swimming pools to be clean and hygienic, then they need to be treated with a strong disinfectant to keep them free from bacteria.
On the other hand, with soaring rates of obesity among both children and adults, there is a societal obligation to encourage people to exercise and keep fit.
In fact we could resolve this seemingly unresolvable problem – keeping our pools both clean and eczema-friendly – if we junked traditional cleaning chemicals such as chlorine and bromine and replaced them instead with ozone filtration.
Babies may be at particular risk of asthma because their lungs are still developing
Chemicals such as chlorine disinfect pools but, as a by-product of the process, they also combine with the detritus of swimmers – dead skin, bacteria, urine, sweat and body oils – to form substances known as chloramines.
It is these chloramines, not the chlorine itself, that are responsible for eye and nose irritation, skin problems and the typical pungent swimming pool smell.
With ozone filtration, ozone gas – a form of oxygen – is pumped into the water, where it reacts immediately with the contaminants. It acts as a flocculent, that is, it causes the contaminants to remain in a suspended state so that they can be easily removed by the standard water filtration process – without producing skin-irritating by-products.
This cleaning system is equally, if not more, effective and is much kinder to skin.
Yet just a handful of public pools in London and two in Yorkshire have this superior cleaning system.
Without a change in statute requiring public pools to switch to ozone filtration, nothing will get done.
However, despite my many attempts to lobby MPs about initiating such a change, I’m met with either polite disinterest or glassy-eyed indifference – even though I sit on an all-party Parliamentary committee on skin.
There haven’t been attempts to field even a feeble fight about the cost, though this would only amount to the higher initial capital cost of installing a new filtration system.
Once in place, ozone filtration could reduce the ongoing operating and maintenance costs because it is less damaging to the infrastructure of a pool than chlorine.
And when you consider the incalculable and potentially fatal cost of a child who fails to learn to swim because their eczema precluded them from getting into the local pool, then it doesn’t take much to do the maths.
Suffering with red, itchy, angry skin is difficult enough.
Not being able to take a swim when a solution exists to this mounting problem is, quite simply, discrimination.
Andrew Wright is professor of dermatology at the University of Bradford.