Everyone that swims knows the feeling. Coming out of the water wrapped in the veil of chlorine. It’s true when you’re a child and it remains true through adulthood.
It’s ostensibly a clean smell, but who’s to say? Public pools, in particular, are not necessarily clean places. All those bodies can overwhelm even the chemical world of chlorine. As a courtesy, I choose to shower before swimming. We might assume our bodies are clean, but like they say…to assume makes an ass out of you and me. In this case, that is literally true.
I do like the feel of a warm shower before swimming anyway. It warms up my shoulders like a stretching routine. And on the rebound, it feels good to go from the pool into the warm shower again. Multiple rewards.
Yet the soap provided by the health club actually smells a bit like chlorine. It’s not a strong soap by any means. Just a hand of foam you rub over yourself. Of course, if we knew how many germs were in that soap or around that dispenser we probably would not use it at all. It’s like hotel bedspreads and TV remotes. The less we know…
Germs are our friend. Usually.
But I’m not a germophobe. Far from it. Studies are showing that so-called germs are actually healthy for our gut(s). We need bacteria for a healthy digestive system. Even the bad stuff plays a role in our internal balance.
Which is why swimming is such an interesting engagement with the world of water. In a chemically treated pool, chlorine dominates the scene. So you come out smelling like pool. It’s a quid pro quo.
Yet I do remember arriving at our public pool a few years back and being told it was closed down for the afternoon. “Code Brown,” they told us at the gate. Some kid had pooped in the pool. Just like Caddyshack, except not a Baby Ruth bar. The risk of e. Coli is quite high with poop floating around in the public pool.
Swimming in a lake, river or ocean is a completely different experience than being immersed in the chemical bath of a public pool. While swimming in these waters, we take water in through our mouths and skin that we would never think of drinking straight from the source. Yet our bodies are somehow able to deal with it. Absent the chlorine, we still come out healthy. Perhaps even healthier. Apparently a little fish pee never really hurt anyone.
The body might actually thrive on a little resistance, you see. All that antibacterial soap and chlorine may appear to protect us, but perhaps not. I recall the day my own son grabbed a handful of dirt when he was just over a year old. He stuck it in his mouth and went to eat it. The expression on his face told me it did not taste very good. But he did not die from a mouthful of dirt.
At Ironman events where people swim in basically dirty water––which is every river on the American continent that goes through a major city––conditions can get rather gritty. Algal blooms have threatened races such as Ironman Chattanooga, and racers need to be cautious in summer months when bacteria counts in warm bodies of water can rise to dangerous levels.
There are big concerns about the water in Rio for the 2016 Olympics. One athlete says, “I’ve swum in far worse.” But the idea that athletes may be at risk of illness just by entering the water is no fun. As the approach to the Olympics begins, this is the news about the water: “Kristina Mena, a US expert in risk assessment for waterborne viruses, told the Associated Press that there was a 99% chance of infection from three teaspoons of water.”
Fortunately, it seems the incidence of infections from swimming in open water seem relatively few. We don’t hear about them anyway. It’s not like a race is going to broadcast the fact that 20 people went to the hospital with ear, nose or urinary infections from swimming in a lake. Wetsuits help prevent some of that, but not all.
It is far more likely that our bodies get to work against bacteria and viruses in everyday situations. It’s how our bodies build up immunity.
Perhaps we’re meant to engage with this world a bit more than we think. When we get an infection, our modern day instincts tell us to swamp it with antibiotics. Yet we’re learning that evolution stands on the side of bacteria when it comes to adapting to adverse environments.
Bacteria, it turns out, are a lot “smarter” than we like to think. Many forms have evolved resistance to antibiotics. I personally knew a nurse who traveled to Mexico and had a manicure while she was there. Some sort of evil bug invaded her system through the water. She went septic and died back home in Illinois. From a manicure.
In hospitals, “Superbug” infections now kill nearly 23,000 people per year. It’s an ironic consequence the human race has essentially created by trying to wipe out dangerous bacteria using antibiotics. That’s why doctors tell you never to use antibiotics when you don’t really need them, and to finish the entire prescription lest the bug come roaring back. Treating bugs with drugs is one of the tarsnakes of modern life.
Same goes for cancer and chemotherapy. Those creationist freaks can claim that evolution isn’t real all they want. When it comes to germs and cancer and cellular adaptations, evolution is the end game of all end- games. You can’t pray away the effects of deadly germs or else we’d be able to prevent all 23,000 of those hospital deaths each year. Water is real. Germs are real. Evolution is real. Death is real. Otherwise, we would not chlorinate our water. Case closed.
Everyday chlorine use
We use chlorine in our pools and drinking water for reasons of public health. We largely assume it to be safe, as it has been the practice for decades to chlorinate drinking water and treat pools with such chemicals.
But that may change in the future because there are risks associated with use of chlorine, which has been directly linked to certain forms of cancer. When you put something that powerful into your body on a consistent basis, there is a risk that mutations may occur at the cellular level. Chlorine is the sugar of drinking water.
Which also means there may come a time when chlorine is not the chemical of choice, in drinking water at least. Ozonation is a new way to treat drinking water that does not have the same side effects.
Smelling like pool
But for now, and the perceivable future, it is likely we’ll all continue to “smell like pool.” That’s what my girlfriend told me one day while giving me a warm hug upon my arrival after a pool workout.
She’s got a good sniffer on her, that girl. It was actually sweet to hear those words from her. She loves to swim. I think she likes the fact that I’m making my own good progress in the sport. Terms of endearment among triathletes are funny things, you see. “You smell like pool” is a compliment.
It represents the feeling of blood pumping through arms, shoulders and chest after swimming. Climb out of the water and there’s a hum and a glow in those muscles after a long swim. Then the water settles down after you’ve emerged. It’s an existential thing. When you’re in the pool that water is essentially resisting your every move. It takes practice and hard work to turn water into your friend, using it to propel yourself through the lane as you take in oxygen and pump out carbon dioxide. It is an intimate experience.
That’s what she means when she says, “You smell like pool.” It works both ways.