Taking a Dip: The Water May Not Be Fine

It’s one thing to pause from swimming laps when signs at the local rec center advise that aquatics facilities aren’t open due to the presence of “foreign material”. It’s quite another when a former Olympic swimmer refuses to go to the pool anymore – even and especially if the water smells strongly of chlorine.

After winning the bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Games, Catherine Garceau, a member of the Canadian synchronized swimming team, developed chronic bronchitis as well as frequently recurring migraines. "I delved into the possible effects of chlorine and discovered some shocking facts," she’s quoted by CNN as saying.

One alarm bell-ringing discovery: Just because a pool “smelled clean” because of chlorine didn’t make it so; far from it, in fact. And in many cases, the health effects of exposure to pool water can and do extend to the area of male fertility.

It’s important to remember that pool water, while chock-full of germ-killing chlorine, also may contain other contaminants, such as hair, sweat, sunscreen, makeup…and the above-mentioned “foreign material”.

Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation, perhaps best summed up this area of concern when he told CNN, "When you open up a tap and pour yourself a glass of water, you don't normally put someone's backside in it. But every time a person gets in [a pool], they're adding contaminants."

The potential health effects of pool water appear to be even greater when it comes to indoor facilities.  A 2012 report from Holistic Primary Care  (HPC) indicates that swimming in chlorinated water increases the chances of respiratory and asthma problems in children.

The report quoted Alfred Bernard, PhD, research director at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, as advising doctors to tell their patients with asthma to stay away from pools with high chlorine levels – found even in some backyard pools, but compounded by substances present in indoor pool areas.

But what about the effects on fertility?

Bernard and his research team in 2011 published a paper in the International Journal of Andrology that demonstrated a link between childhood use of public chlorinated pools and a decrease in testicular function.

The study included 361 male school adolescents ranging in age from 14 to 18 who had frequented swimming pools disinfected by copper-silver ionization or with chlorine.

Results showed that adolescents who had used indoor chlorinated pools for greater than 250 hours before the age of 10 or for more than 125 hours prior to the age of 7 were roughly 300 per cent more likely to register abnormally low testosterone levels – less than the tenth percentile – than those of peers who had not used these kinds of swimming facilities while children.

Bernard told HPC that if society wishes to continue using chlorine, then rules that regulate chlorine levels in water need to be enforced – both “in the water and in the air of swimming pools, as has been done in Germany”.

Taking these findings one step further, what about hot tubs, which are routinely disinfected by chlorine and also generate heat that some say could be harmful to the production of sperm?

A news release from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) quotes Professor Paul J. Turek, MD, commenting on a study published by the Interntional Braz J Urol, the official publication of the Brazilian Society of Urology.

Turek, a professor of urology at UCSF, mentioned a decades-old understanding about the harmful effects of wet heat exposure on fertility, and furthermore confirmed that the Brazil study produced hard evidence showing that men engaging in recreational activities involving wet heat are at a “real risk” for impacting their fertility.

True, Turek conceded, the study was merely one stand-alone piece of scholarship, but added that, in his opinion, “these activities can be comfortably added to that list of lifestyle recommendations and ‘things to avoid’ as men attempt to conceive.”

The Cleveland Clinic agrees, advising in a 2017 article that men should “skip the hot tub”. Even though testicles can remain cooler than other body parts because of their unique structure and are therefore at less risk in a sauna-like environment, in hot tubs they are submerged and have to way of cooling themselves.

As with other lifestyle risks, the effects of chlorine and wet heat activities should not be underestimated. Safely and proactively preserving your assets now provides peace of mind whether taking those frequent dips or sitting comfortably poolside.

As always, the choice is yours.