Not just red eyes and it’s not just the pee

In June 2015 to start the school summer vacation, the Globe and Mail published an article called “Pee, not chlorine, causes red eyes from swimming pools: CDC.” This article may have “grossed out” some, but I looked at it as an opportunity to engage in some real-life practical chemistry. And from my investigation, it is not just red eyes and not just the pee.

Once used as a refrigerant and still made to produce fertilizer, ammonia (NH3) is also a chemistry teacher’s ally. Mix an ammonium chloride solution with base in a small test tube and as hydroxide accepts H+ from ammonium ions, the liberated ammonia gas can easily awaken a sleepy student. Kidding aside, the odor threshold for ammonia varies significantly from one individual to the next (is there any correlation with the amount of spicy food eaten and insensitivity to NH3... a great idea for a student project!) The amount of ammonia present in sweat is also not constant among different people. Aside from attracting mosquitoes, ammonia released from skin pores gets into swimming pools where it reacts with hypochlorous acid from the chlorination process to produce various chloramines:

NH3 + HOCl → NH2Cl + H2O

NH2Cl + HOCl → NHCl2 + H2O

NHCl2 + HOCl → NCl3 + H2O

The mono and dichloramines, as shown, go on to react and produce volatile trichloroamine or nitrogen trichloride (NCl3). An acidic pH can also accelerate this conversion to NCl3, which in small concentrations can cause red eyes and nose and throat irritations in swimmers. These symptoms become more pronounced in people working at indoor pools.

Of course, ammonia isn’t the only source of NCl3. Sweat also contains urea, which is capable of reacting with OCl- to eventually produce cyanogen chloride (CNCl) and NCl3. Another significant source of urea is urine. Any inappropriate relieving on the part of bathers will meet the same chemical fate.

Let’s look at the health evidence more closely. In a 2010 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, investigators found an average concentration of 0.66 mg/m3 of NCl3 in the air above 20 indoor pools in northern Italy. Among 133 pool workers, those more in contact with the water (swim instructors and especially those who were both pool attendants and instructors) had higher odds ratios for itchy, watery eyes, infections and respiratory problems.

In a fair amount of popular writing, there is a current tendency to either cater to chemophobia or to fight it. In the latter case, writers sometimes fall into the trap of overusing the “too low a concentration to cause harm” argument. But here is a clear case of how a small concentration (less than 1 ppm on a per volume basis) of a poison like NCl3 isn’t as innocuous as previously assumed.

From a preventive viewpoint, the research reinforces the value of long-standing recommendations to shower and use the bathroom before entering a pool, especially if it is an indoor one with a low ceiling and inadequate ventilation.

[Editor’s note: After the pool chemistry discussion, have your students draw Lewis dot diagrams of some of the products that form in your swimming pool, such as NCl3, CNCl, OCl-.]


  1. Pee, not chlorine, causes red eyes from swimming pools: CDC, Globe and Mail, June 2015,
  2. G. Fantuzzi, E. Righi, G. Predieri, P. Giacobazzi, K. Mastroianni, and G. Aggazzotti, Prevalence of Ocular, Respiratory and Cutaneous Symptoms in Indoor Swimming Pool Workers and Exposure to Disinfection By-Products (DBPs), International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, April 2010, pages 1379 –1391.
  3. C. Bogatu, D. Leszczynska, L. Beqa, G. Mosoarca and L. Cocheci, Trichloramine Formation and Decay during Breakpoint Process, Chemical Bulletin of “Politehnica” University of Timisoara, Romania, Volume 55(69), 2, 2010
  4. D. Czarnowski, J. Górski, J. Jóźwiuk, A. Boroń-Kaczmarska, Plasma ammonia is the principal source of ammonia in sweat, European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 1992, Volume 65, Issue 2, pages 135-137.
  5. Y. Araki and S. Ando Urea, Amino acid and ammonia in human sweat, The Japanese Journal of Physiology, Vol. 3, 1952 pages 211-218
  6. Web MD answers
  7. M. A. H. Braks, J. Meijerink and W. Takken, The response of the malaria mosquito, Anopheles gambiae, to two components of human sweat, ammonia and l-lactic acid, in an olfactometer, Physiological Entomology, first published online December 21, 2001