Pools Out for Summer: Chlorine

There are natural ways to keep the pool clean this summer. (Photo: Prayitno [CC BY-2.0]/Flickr)

Although I was reared in the Pacific Northwest where backyard swimmin’ holes aren’t as common as in other more sunshine-y parts of the country, I’m mighty familiar with the gold standard of swimming pool disinfectants: chlorine.

I started swimming at a young age and swam competitively throughout most of my childhood and adolescence, so I’m no stranger to itchy skin, red, burning eyes, a pungent bleach-y stench, and damaged hair.

As an adult, my contact with chlorine-treated swimming pools is less frequent but I’m able to instantly pick up on the scent and sensation of the toxic, ozone-depleting chemical wherever I go. It’s an almost nostalgic feeling ... like smelling mom’s home cooking or cozying up with a favorite childhood blanket for the first time in years. Chlorine is ingrained in me.

“Natural,” non-chlorine pool cleaning methods do indeed exist but aren’t exactly popular in the U.S. However, as more pool owners become aware of the harmful effects that chlorine has on the environment and on human health, safer sanitizers like ozone, purifying plants, and even ultrasonic waves are getting more attention.

The thing is, chlorine is ubiquitous — about 10 million metric tons of it are produced in the U.S. each year for a variety of purposes including chemical weapons and pesticides — and even if you're not swimming in it, you’re still probably exposed to it via another source. In fact, by EPA estimates, Americans ingest 300 to 600 times the “safe dose” of dioxins, a carcinogenic compound, because of chlorine pollution.

So how easy is it to make a partial or complete switch away from chlorine as a swimming pool disinfectant? Honestly, it can be a bit complicated and a bit pricey. But with a little open mindedness and foresight a clean pool can be achieved without the chemical burn. Here are three methods that have been growing in popularity (one still involving chlorine):

• Plants: Although adding purifying plants to your swimming pool may give it a swampy ambience, it is an effective way to keep bacteria-killing oxygen pumping throughout a pool. Plants also save energy and water and foster wildlife in addition to keeping a pool clean. In fact, aquatic plants are a hallmark of the popular-in-Europe natural swimming pool craze. Adding plants to your pool requires careful consideration and planning — you can’t just throw in some water lilies and call it a day. You’ll most likely have to start from scratch and consult with a specialized landscape architect to help you create a proper, functional water garden.

Mother Earth News has in-depth info on building natural, plant-filled pools, the Daily Green has some gorgeous photos of a few, and the New York Times profiles leaders in the natural pool movement.

• Oxidation: Personally, I’m not a natural pool kind of guy. As much as I like swimming in lakes and ponds, I prefer standard swimming pools because I’m not submerged in a body of water that’s also a thriving ecosystem filled with critters like frogs and salamanders. Love ‘em to death but I don’t want to brush up against one while swimming laps.

Oxidation systems, often combined with ionization, produce natural ozone, a strong but safe disinfectant that’s often injected into drinking water supplies, to kill microorganisms and keep pools squeaky clean ... no lily pads or critters involved. Ozone generators for swimming pools aren’t always cheap and maintenance can be tricky, as a New York Times article from 2008 points out. Still, for folks looking to steer clear of chlorine (occasional chlorine “shockings” may be required) ozone is worth considering. Blue Diamond, TechnoPure and DEL Ozone are three companies producing oxidation-based pool cleaning systems.

• Saltwater: To clear up a common misconception: saltwater pools aren’t exactly chorine-free. A chlorine generator is actually involved. This device, through electrolysis, breaks down salts and turns them it into chlorine. Essentially, you’re “naturally” creating chlorine compounds instead of buying and handling toxic chemicals. Chlorine generators can be expensive up front but you do save money by not buying chlorine; maintenance costs are also low. Also, despite some backlash against the saltwater pool movement, the experience of swimming in water treated with chlorine generators is said to be a more refreshing experience. Intex is the manufacturer of popular chlorine generators.