To swim or not to swim: childhood asthma and indoor swimming pools

156081795_4db0ad8ec1.jpgOver the last few decades, enthusiasm for indoor swimming has been on the rise, as aquatic swim programs for babies and toddlers grew in popularity and swimming has become mandatory in many school curricula. In particular, swimming had been long recommended as a better sport for children with childhood asthma as a way to improve fitness without unduly straining the respiratory system. However, many health and safety issues remained, since increased eye and respiratory symptoms have been reported in swimmers due to their exposure to swimming pool water disinfectants or disinfection byproducts.

Now a “state of the science” report presented by researchers from premier academic institutions and government regulatory agencies from the U.S., Canada, and Europe summarized findings of 18 different studies that all noted an association between attendance at chlorinated indoor pools and increasing frequencies of allergic disease and asthma. Similar health concerns are noted for Olympic swimmers, pool workers, and lifeguards who spend a lot of time by the poolside. Moreover, the increased use of swimming pools by the very young has increased their exposure to potential respiratory irritants within the indoor swimming pool environment.

What chemicals in indoor pool water and air pose particular risks to children’s health? Chlorine is the most common chemical used to disinfect swimming pools. And while disinfection is absolutely necessary to prevent the spread of water-borne diseases, the type of disinfection, quantities of disinfection chemicals added and pool hygiene practices can have a significant impact on the safety of swimming pool water. Chlorine reacts with residual organic matter in pool water to form volatile disinfection byproducts such as chloroform and other potent respiratory irritants. Long-term exposure to these chemicals is known to pose a variety of health risks, from breathing problems to increased risk of cancer.

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