Summer marks the time of the year when we shift from trying to keep warm and focus more on staying cool. One of the most entertaining and healthiest ways to do this is by swimming. This activity is commonly done in pools, whether they be indoor, outdoor, public, or private. Unfortunately, there is a commonality between most pools that may be quietly harming the thyroid. Hypothyroidism is estimated at affecting roughly 13 million Americans and exposure to chemicals in pools, which are inhaled or absorbed through one’s skin, is a contributing factor.
The thyroid is particularly sensitive to toxins, including those that are found in many pools. Understanding the potential dangers contained in most swimming pools and taking the appropriate steps to avoid them can improve thyroid health.
What’s Hiding in the Water?
Even though swimming is a great way to beat the heat, it is best to avoid using pools as much as possible. A recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology has found that common disinfectant practices for pools and hot tubs can produce harmful substances known as DBPs (disinfectant by-products). Common ingredients found in pool disinfectants, such as chlorine and bromine, produce DBPs when they mix with bodily fluids such as sweat and urine. This reaction can also occur when these chemicals encounter many personal care products including sunscreen, body lotion, make-up, and perfume.
Although it may seem odd, showering before and after taking a swim in the pool can significantly reduce one’s exposure to harmful DBPs. By rinsing off prior to entering this hotbed of chemical reactions, one removes consumer products such as lotions and oils, as well as organic compounds such as sweat and urine that react with pool disinfectants. Showering after swimming also helps reduce exposure to harmful chemicals by reducing the amount of time they remain in contact with the skin, therefore reducing the degree of absorption.
Nitrogen trichloride, or trichloramine, is a DBP that is created when chlorine reacts with ammonia (found in urine and sweat). Exposure to this chemical is part of the reason why swimming instructors are twice as likely to experience frequent sinusitis (inflamed nasal cavities) and sore throat. Furthermore, they are three times more likely to regularly suffer from colds. Those who work in and around pools having a 40% increased risk of experiencing tightening of the chest and are 7 times more likely to experience reduced respiratory ability. There have been studies conducted that suggest a link between asthma and pool chemicals.
Common symptoms of exposure to swimming pool chemicals include:
- Itchy skin
- Irritated eyes
- Asthma and respiratory difficulties
- Increased risk of bladder cancer
- Pregnancy issues
Iodine and the Thyroid
Before discussing the impact of swimming pool chemicals on the thyroid, it is important to understand how the thyroid functions. Iodine and tyrosine are two naturally occurring elements that are crucial to produce thyroid hormones. One’s thyroid converts tyrosine into thyroglobulin, which attaches to iodine. Depending on the number of iodine molecules attached, one, two, three, or four, the result is thyroid hormone T1, T2, T3, or T4. Iodine is perhaps the most critical mineral for healthy thyroid function because it is necessary for thyroid hormone construction.
Endocrine disruptors are substances that have significant negative impact on thyroid function. They are most frequently found within pesticides, plastics, fire retardants, some medications, and hot tub and swimming pool treatments. Although the original intent for many of these products was to increase safety and health, there are significant dangers that accompany them.
Bromine and chlorine, two common ingredients for pool disinfectants, are found in the halogen family. Iodine is also found in this family, meaning that the three substances have shared characteristics. Unfortunately, bromine, chlorine, and iodine are similar enough that the body can mistakenly absorb bromine and chlorine when it has a need for iodine. These chemicals compete for the same receptors housed within the thyroid, meaning that if bromine or chlorine arrive first, iodine can be rejected.
The skin is the primary method of absorbing nutrients and needed chemicals. By soaking this large organ in a pool containing bromine and chlorine, one can seriously inhibit thyroid function. Overexposure to these chemicals makes absorption of iodine increasingly difficult, ultimately resulting in iodine deficiency. Excess chlorine and bromine housed in the thyroid decreases the output of thyroid hormones because these chemicals cannot be used for hormone production like iodine can. Reduced thyroid hormone synthesis results in hypothyroidism. Therefore, greater prevalence of chlorine and bromine in the body significantly increases the risk of developing hypothyroidism.
How to Support Your Thyroid
The most obvious and most effective method of avoiding thyroid-damaging chemicals in pools and hot tubs is to simply not use them. However, if one does not have an alternative natural swimming location available, such as a lake or ocean, there are ways to reduce exposure to chlorine and bromine.
Keep your iodine levels high: If your thyroid is fully charged with iodine, there are fewer receptors available to be used by bromine and chlorine. This effectively reduces the risk of over absorbing iodine-imitators that inhibit thyroid health. There are numerous iodine supplements available and the following foods are rich in iodine:
- Sea vegetables
- Saltwater fish
Avoid swimming directly after pool treatments: If you are using a pool maintained by someone other than yourself, inquire about the cleaning and treatment schedule. It is best to schedule swim sessions on days furthest away from pool treatments to reduce exposure to chemicals.
Safe Swimming for the Summer
Everyone benefits from engaging in safe swim practices. However, those who have already been diagnosed with a thyroid condition should be particularly wary regarding swimming pools. By implementing the safety tips mentioned in this article such as vigilant showering, upping iodine intake, and avoiding increased exposure, one’s thyroid should be more prepared to fight against unwanted chemicals. Keeping your thyroid happy and healthy brings improved wellness that allows you to better enjoy your summer fun.