Recently the FDA announced the plan to remove antibacterial soaps from the market. The news of late has been awash with coverage on the scramble to find alternatives to the failing antibiotics that we have overused and relied upon far too long.
This revolution extends even to your backyard—like the big push for antibacterial soaps, the attachment to using antibacterials in swimming pools remains. Unfortunately, the human body absorbs far more chlorine and other chemicals from swimming and showering than from drinking or hand washing. So why are they no longer acceptable in soap, but required for swimming pools? What alternatives to chlorinated swimming pools exist that still render the water safe and clean? As it turns out, there are many.
LIVING POOLS: A TRULY “GREEN” SWIMMING OPTION
Living pools are “miniature lakes,” truly living ecosystems that keep water pure by using plants, naturally occurring microbes and other microorganisms to purify the water. When properly designed and managed, such systems should require no chemicals of any kind. Such pools are rare in the U.S., but have garnered a good deal of attention in recent years and are growing in popularity. One hindrance is cost—living pools are generally more expensive than chemical-based pools. Living pools also take up more space, or require a smaller pool, since a filtration pond is required as part of the system.
One question living pools raise is how appropriate they are for larger, public or high-traffic pools, like at fitness centers. An ecosystem can only take so much, some say, no matter how resilient and well designed. Yet Europe now boasts over twenty thousand such pools, many open to the general public. It appears that the biggest hindrance in the U.S. to better pools isn’t technological progress, but regulatory excess. Most state regulations on public and for-profit swimming pools don’t allow people to even consider natural pools as an option, or increase the cost well beyond the already high price tag, especially for public or for-profit pools.
The current exception is the Webber Natural Swimming Pool in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which has “a natural filtration system that will use plants in a nearby pond rather than chemicals to treat the water.” The regeneration pond located next to the pool allows the water to be cleaned and then returned to the main pool for use, and is home to all sorts of plant and aquatic species that participate in the process. Webber pool is a “warts and all experience,” as the frogs and other wildlife in the pond are a part of the swimming experience, even if only at a close distance. They are also necessary—such ancillary species help control mosquitoes and other pests. These pools, environmentally and otherwise, are truly a “green” thing (both green in terms of positive environmental impact, but also green in terms of cost).
STAUNTON’S PUBLIC POOLS
If living pools are not appropriate for all places, what are other, perhaps more affordable options? The Gypsy Hill Park pool in Staunton, Virginia, uses one alternative—a system that reduces chlorine usage by over 80 percent while delivering a top-notch swimming experience. It was our family’s trip to this glorious pool that was the inspiration for this article. Our kids love to swim, but dislike the stinging eyes and other side effects of heavily chlorinated pools. A minute after diving into the Gypsy Hill Park pool, our kids knew and were vocal about the difference.
I was able to speak with pool manager James Corbett about their system, and the awards it has rightly won. “It allows us to save money, to get the most punch from the least amount of chemicals. By using perlite as a filtration medium, we are able to reduce operational costs, chemical usage, maintenance issues, residue buildup, and component wear and tear.”
Their approach clearly works, as the pool’s clarity and quality are striking. No off smells, no stinging eyes, yet brilliantly clean and clear water—water so good that it has won state-wide recognition.
IT’S A PARTY!
Even closer to home for us, a member of our buying club in Louisville hosts multiple summer pool parties. The filter system is made by EcoSmarte, whose “natural oxygen and ionic copper systems have root technology from NASA and have been installed in all 50 U.S. states and over 100 countries since 1994.” Sounds fancy, but the experience of swimming in our friend’s pool was all the proof we needed. No stinging eyes, no strong or strange smells, no dry skin—just clear and clean water.
The copper in the pool runs between .4 to .7 ppm (parts per million) to keep algae in check. The system also uses ozone to control bacteria and other microorganisms. Interestingly, the process produces water that feels really “wet” because of the reduced surface tension of the water molecules.
Concerns regarding copper and other metal-based systems are person-dependent. If you have elevated copper levels or other health issues that copper exposure exacerbates, a pool such as this is probably a poor choice, as copper is absorbed through the skin (albeit in very small amounts), as well as by any water a swimmer may swallow. Also, if you already receive copper exposure through copper plumbing in your home or through your occupation, a copper-based pool system is probably not for you. If you have normal or low levels and low-to-normal exposure, such a pool is probably harmless or perhaps possibly helpful.
DON’T BE SALTY
Some think that salt pools are superior to chlorine. But a salt pool is still just a chlorine pool, one with less chlorine involved and lower chlorine levels—resulting in less drying of the skin, less stinging of the eyes, and less negative environmental impact—but it is a chlorine pool nonetheless, and still creates chloramines and other chlorine by-products. Yet there are ways to reduce the amount of salt or chlorine needed to maintain a pool without having to purchase an entirely new system.
Another interesting option, though it is one we have not seen firsthand for swimming, is ultraviolet (UV) light-based systems. These are the least popular option in the U.S., far behind chlorine and salt systems, though like natural pools somewhat common in Europe. UV is often used in conjunction with other filtration and disinfection approaches, especially salt.
UV works by emitting “a high-intensity germicidal light ray that alters or disrupts the DNA or RNA of targeted organisms such as algae, bacteria, viruses, cysts and protozoa. The highly-concentrated electromagnetic energy also destroys organic matter, eliminating the formation of dangerous chlorine by-products.” This technology has been used for drinking water for quite some time in the U.S., even in very large cities like New York. Thus it is a technology that is well-tested and used across the world, even if not applied regularly to swimming pools in the United States.
Numerous companies in the U.S. now make alternatives to chlorine-based systems. These will generally cost more than standard systems. Almost all the systems use similar principles but different metals and other components to achieve the desired results. Some use titanium, some use copper, some use silver, some use a mixture of the above or others. Since the materials involved vary, if you or a loved one has a sensitivity or health issue related to a particular material, systems built around it are probably not appropriate for your situation.
Some also seek to minimize or mitigate the amount of chlorine necessary to maintain the pool, such as ozone generators, which can reduce chlorine use by 60-90 percent. For those with an existing pool that would be expensive or difficult to rebuild, such an approach seems more than reasonable. Adding UV or ozone can reduce chemical and chlorine usage by 80 percent or more when done properly.
Given the sheer number of systems and providers, it is best to do your homework on any company and gather independent reviews and references for their products, along with finding a qualified person to install the systems. Since the systems are not standard, some professionals may be unwilling or unable to install them, and may also be unhelpful if you run into problems.
A SHOCKING EXPERIENCE
Pool owners and users now even have non-chlorine shock options, such as a product called In The Swim Chlorine-Free Pool Shock. All of this is shockingly good news to parents like us, who look forward to more options both at home and when traveling to enjoy swimming in safe, clean, and lower or safer chemical water for our family.
RESOURCES AND REFERENCES
• http://ecosmarte.com/ and http://ecosmarte.com/sciencesummary.html
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2016.