Flame Retardants and DEET Now in Swimming Pools

Flame Retardants in Swimming Pool

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers found 32 different chemicals in swimming-pool water, including flame retardants, caffeine, and DEET (an active ingredient in insect repellant)
  • About 75 percent of Americans have flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies
  • Flame retardants also contaminate the world’s oceans, and when fish eat plastic contaminated with flame retardants they show signs of endocrine disruption and tumor formation

By Dr. Mercola

About 75 percent of California residents have flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies, according to a late 2014 study.1 Many of them had no less than six different kinds, including one (chlorinated tris, or TDCIPP) that was phased out of children's pajamas in the 1970s.

Also surprising was the discovery of tris-(2-chloroethyl) phosphate, or TCEP, which has never been detected in Americans before. TCEP is a known carcinogen and damages your nervous and reproductive systems.

The study highlighted an important finding, which was that those with the highest levels lived in homes with the highest levels in household dust. This means that flame-retardant chemicals lurking in your home – in your mattress and your couch cushions, for instance – are a primary source of exposure… but it's not the only one.

Flame Retardants Found in Swimming Pools

It's known that highly toxic disinfection byproducts (DBPs) form from reactions between pool disinfectants and organic matter, including hair, skin, sweat, dirt, urine and more.

Researchers from Purdue University wondered whether similar reactions occurred between disinfectants like chlorine and other chemicals in the water, such as those from personal care products.

To find out, they first needed to find out what kinds of chemicals are in the water. So they tested water from three indoor swimming pools in the US – two public pools used mostly by college students and one pool located inside a high school. They found 32 different chemicals in the water.2 Of them, three were most common:

  • TCEP, the carcinogenic flame retardant that's found in 75 percent of Californians (and probably is equally prevalent in other Americans)
  • Caffeine
  • DEET, an active ingredient in insect repellants

It's unclear just how much flame-retardant and other chemical exposures may be coming from swimming pools, but it deserves a closer look, especially if you spend a lot of time swimming in pools. The study's lead author noted:3

"Swimmers are exposed to chemicals through three different routes: You can inhale, you can ingest and it can go through your skin. So the exposure you receive in a swimming pool setting is potentially much more extensive than the exposure you would receive by just one route alone."

It was also unclear just how the flame retardant TCEP was being introduced to the pool water, although the researchers noted other chemicals, like caffeine, were likely introduced by human excretions (sweat and urine).

If 75 percent of Americans excrete flame retardants in their urine, then perhaps that is responsible for the levels found in pools as well. It's also possible flame-retardant chemicals contaminate the water before anyone gets in. As the National Resources Defense Council explained:4

"During manufacturing, use and disposal, these [flame retardant] chemicals are released into the environment where they can be found in air, water, and wildlife. They are carried on air currents as far away as the Arctic where they pollute native human populations, marine mammals, and even polar bears."

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Should You Avoid Swimming Pools?

Most public pools are overloaded with chlorine, as the well-intentioned people who maintain public pools overly shock them with chlorine to make sure bacteria and other organisms get snuffed out quickly.

But even the swimming pool in your backyard could be toxic if you treat it with chlorine – even if you're relatively confident there aren't other chemicals (like DEET) in the water.

Any organic matter – including hair, skin, sweat, and dirt – can react with chlorine to create DBPs. It's known that trihalomethanes (THMs), one of the most common DBPs, are Cancer Group B carcinogens, meaning they've been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

They've also been linked to reproductive problems in both animals and humans, such as spontaneous abortion, stillbirths, and congenital malformations, even at lower levels.

People who frequent swimming pools have an increased risk of bladder cancer compared to those who do not,5 and DBPs have even been suggested as partially responsible for the increased risk of melanoma cancer among swimmers.6

According to one study published in the Journal of Environmental Sciences,7 the cancer risk of DBPs (in this case THMs) from various routes in descending order was:

  1. Skin exposure while swimming
  2. Gastro-intestinal exposure from tap water intake
  3. Skin exposure to tap water
  4. Gastro-intestinal exposure while swimming

The cancer risk from skin exposure while swimming comprised over 94 percent of the total cancer risk resulting from being exposed to THMs! The authors even went so far as to conclude that swimming in a chlorinated pool presents "an unacceptable cancer risk."

Can Swimming Pools Be Made Safer?

One of the best solutions is NOT to chlorinate your pool and just use a maintenance "shock" treatment every five or six days, which will kill the algae buildup. The shock treatment volatilizes in about 24-48 hours and gives you a several-day window in which you can safely use your pool.

You can also reduce the amount of organic material you bring into the pool, and thereby the amount of DBPs created, by showering prior to entering and teaching your children not to urinate in the water.

This will be difficult if you're visiting a public swimming pool or waterpark, however, since many people do not shower prior to entering, and you can't control what other types of chemicals (from personal care products, sunscreens, insect repellants and, yes, urine) might be in the water.

Swimming in an ocean is an excellent alternative, as is swimming in a lake or other natural unpolluted body of water. Although, even these are, sadly, mostly contaminated.

Flame Retardants, Plastic Ubiquitous in the World's Oceans

A new study published in PLOS One found there are more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons in the world's oceans.8 The data came from 24 expeditions involving surface net tows and visual spotting of large plastic debris.

There was actually less plastic found floating on the water than expected, but that's because the researchers believe the plastic is broken down quickly. It either sinks and gets caught in deeper water currents or it's eaten by marine animals, including barnacles, zooplankton, fish, birds, and whales. Said the study's lead author:9

"Plastic in the ocean is basically a hazardous waste, as it absorbs this plethora of persistent chemical wastes and… delivers these toxins to these animals that unknowingly ingest them."

Chief among those chemical wastes are, you guessed it, flame retardants, which past studies have shown are persistent ocean pollutants. Research from the University of California-Davis has revealed that when fish eat plastic contaminated with flame retardants they show signs of endocrine disruption, tumor formation and malformed gonads.10

As Newsweek reported:11 "It stands to reason this is also happening in the wild, and that plastics may serve as a vector to transfer pollutants into fish, and then perhaps the humans who eat these fish…"

Reducing Flame Retardants in Your Home Is a Good Place to Start…

Flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ scores and behavioral problems in children, hormone disruptions, and various forms of cancer. If you want to reduce your exposure, it's wise to start in the place where you spend the most time – your home (not the swimming pool). Tips you can use to reduce your exposure around your home include:12

  • Be especially careful with polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, and pillows, as these are most likely to contain flame-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). If you have any of these in your home, inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also, avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself, as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure.
  • Older carpet padding is another major source of PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet. You'll want to isolate your work area from the rest of your house to avoid spreading it around, and use a HEPA filter vacuum to clean up.
  • You probably also have older sources of the PBDEs known as Deca in your home, and these are so toxic they are banned in several states. Deca PBDEs can be found in electronics like TVs, cell phones, kitchen appliances, fans, toner cartridges, and more. It's a good idea to wash your hands after handling such items, especially before eating, and at the very least be sure you don't let infants mouth any of these items (like your TV remote control or cell phone).
  • As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton.
  • Look for organic and "green" building materials, carpeting, baby items, mattresses, and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals and help reduce your overall exposure. Furniture products filled with cotton, wool, or polyester tend to be safer than chemical-treated foam; some products also state that they are "flame-retardant free."
  • PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.
  • If you want to avoid flame retardants in your mattress, you can have a licensed health care provider write you a prescription for a toxin-free mattress, which can then be ordered without flame retardants from certain resellers. You can also find certain natural mattresses on the market that don't contain them. For instance, most wool mattresses do not have flame-retardant chemicals added because wool is a natural flame retardant.