Understanding How Chlorine Pool Chemicals Work

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

Swimming is a fun and healthy activity, but it’s important to understand that a lot of work has to go into keeping a pool clean. Chemicals are necessary to ensure that pools are safe to swim in, and when those chemicals aren’t properly maintained or applied, it can create a health risk. This article explains how chlorine pool chemicals work and how to ensure that your next trip to the pool is safe.

Types Of Chemicals Used

Most people assume that chlorine is the only disinfectant used in swimming pools. While it is almost always used, chlorine is actually only a part of the chemicals needed to make sure that a pool is safe and clean. Two main chemical compounds are used to disinfect swimming pools:

  • Calcium hypochlorite (a solid)
  • Sodium hypochlorite (a liquid)

In many cases, one of these two chemical compounds is chosen to make sure that the water is clean. Once added, the chlorine in these chemical compounds can actually create new chemicals that help the disinfecting take place.

Another important element in many outdoor pool disinfecting, chemical compounds is a stabilizing agent, such as cyanuric acid. This stabilizing agent ensures that exposure to the sun won’t degrade the chemicals, which are formed when the chlorine reacts with the water. This helps the chemical compounds to be more effective over time.

How Chemicals Create Safer Water

Chemical compounds containing chlorine are available in either liquid, powder or tablet form. It’s very important for the pool owner to follow the directions for the applications of these chemicals very carefully. In most cases, it’s recommended that the chemicals be added through a chemical feeder to avoid uneven concentration of chlorine in the water.

When calcium hypochlorite or sodium hypochlorite is added to the pool, the chlorine in these chemical compounds reacts with the water to create new chemicals like hypochlorous acid. This chemical attacks the actual cells of various bacteria and pathogens in the pool. The oxidation reaction caused by the hypochlorous acid effectively kills the bacteria and creates clean, healthy water.

(If you’ve ever wondered just how dirty a pool can get, check out Are Public Swimming Pools Really That Dirty?)

Possible Health Risks Of Pool Chemicals

Once pool chemicals are added to the water they are much more diluted, so health risk of exposure isn’t too high. However, it’s still important to understand how pool chemicals can affect your health. Most of the potential health issues related to pool chemicals involve the overuse of chlorine as a disinfectant. Some of the symptoms of overexposure to chlorine include:

  • Stomach irritation: Ingesting water that has too much chlorine in it can cause stomach issues, including nausea and vomiting. Some may also experience a burning sensation in the throat.
  • Breathing issues: If you inhale a high concentration of chlorine vapors, it can lead to shortness of breath or even a build-up of fluid in the lungs. This is more of a risk in enclosed spaces like indoor pool areas. Long-term exposure to chlorine gas is actually linked to some lung diseases, such as bronchitis.
  • Skin and eye irritation: Coming into contact with water that has too much chlorine can cause skin or eye irritation.

If you experience any of these symptoms while or after swimming in a pool, seek medical attention right away.

(For more information on how chlorine in pools might affect one’s health, read Health Effects Of Chlorine In Swimming Pools.)

Tips For Safe Use Of Pool Chemicals

The number one thing to be careful about with pool chemicals is avoiding exposure to the chemicals before they’ve been diluted in the water. If you’re the one handling the chemicals, be extremely careful not to let any of the liquid or powder touch your skin or get in your eyes. Consider wearing long sleeves, pants and gloves while applying the chemicals.

You may even want to use a face mask to avoid inhaling the fumes or powders particles. If you do come into contact with the chemicals before they are applied to the pool, seek medical attention immediately.

There are other precautions you can take to ensure that you have a safe experience while swimming in a pool, including:

  • Use testing equipment to check your water’s chemical levels if you are the pool owner.
  • Take a shower right after getting out of the pool to wash away any chemicals on the skin.
  • Keep your mouth closed as much as possible in the pool to avoid ingesting the water.
  • Don’t get in the pool if you have open sores or wounds that may be exposed to the water.
  • Don’t swim in water that smells too strongly of chemicals.
  • Leave an indoor pool area if the smell of chemicals is very strong inside.

Bottom Line

When used properly, chlorine pool chemicals can be very effective at creating clean and safe water to swim in. Keep in mind, however, that you should still use caution when swimming in pools that contain these chemicals. Avoid ingesting pool water and get out of the pool if you feel sick, develop a rash or develop any other uncomfortable symptoms.


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