It’s one of the truly unfortunate traits of human nature — we tend to ignore what we cannot see. We’re an extremely visual species, and when something is invisible, there’s a strong tendency for us to think that it’s simply not there. What disturbs me the most about this characteristic is that it’s true even when the unseen negatively impacts us, directly or indirectly.
Water quality is the perfect example. Water is, by nature, colorless and translucent. The vast majority of people only know whether it sparkles, tastes fresh, and doesn’t smell bad. Beyond that, all the stuff about pH, pathogen levels, sanitizing methods, calcium hardness, total dissolved solids, disinfection byproducts, metals, and dozens of other factors are completely obscure to most people.
Even when water does look funky and smells weird, many of us just ignore it and assume it’s safe — until it bites us with some type of ailment, or worse. Because water is so ubiquitous, it is easy to take it for granted, especially in societies where we have mostly adequate treatment systems. We live our lives in ignorant bliss. Potable water comes out the tap and the soiled water goes down the drain.
On an Enormous Scale
One of the biggest examples of this out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most people are completely unaware that between the west coast of North America and Hawaii, there’s a “patch” of garbage in the middle of the ocean that is, no kidding, twice the size of Texas. It’s an expanse of mostly plastic trash that is pushed together by currents and now is larger than the vast majority of nations on the planet. And, it’s killing fish and other essential marine life at an astonishing rate.
I don’t mean to get on a soapbox here, but how can something that patently awful be allowed to happen? The basic answer is simple: we don’t see it, and so most of us really and truly just don’t care.
Another oceanic travesty is the rapidly dropping pH levels in ocean water around the globe. It’s basic science, there’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there used to be, and as a result, much of it gets absorbed in water, which becomes carbonic acid that in turn lowers the pH. Again, we don’t see it, but it is evident in the destruction of coral reefs and critical species of plankton and krill, all of which leads to the collapse of marine ecosystems.
And, finally there are the dead zones that have grown at the mouths of major rivers. Compounds such as those containing ammonia and phosphates, common in fertilizer and pesticides, flow into rivers, and in turn, engender the growth of invasive algae species, which remove dissolved oxygen for the water as they decompose. The results are vast areas where entire oceanic ecosystems disappear.
Closer to Home
What does any of this have to do with pools and spas, the primary focus of these discussions? The answer is everything because the problems we have with recreational water quality are at the most basic level due to the same lack of concern. We simply fail to pay attention to the conditions of the water.
In the case of pollution impacting natural waters, the problem is global in scale, but when we swim in pools that are contaminated or at least plagued with bad water chemistry, the issue becomes far more personal. Getting sick from bad water at the neighborhood pool may be miniscule by comparison, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re the one or it’s your kids who get sick. When a health department shuts down a commercial pool and costs the owners money, only then do those impacted start to consider the consequences of ignoring water quality, or doing the bare minimum required by codes.
Whether it’s the oceans or the 500 gallons of water in your personal hot tub, we’d all do well to simply pay more attention and, dare I say, take action when we are confronted with unhealthy water. Better yet still, I imagine a world where we prevent problems before they get out of hand. Our lives depend on potable water, our health relies on people who know how to care for water, and, indeed, the entire life on our planet cannot sustain itself when it exists in what amounts to sewage.
We have to do better and we can do better. Perhaps if we start small and pay greater attention to water at the tap and the water we use for fun, relaxation, and wellness, maybe then our collective attention might shift to the much bigger pictures. But that all starts with a shift in mentality where we come to more fully appreciate the critical nature of healthy water. Until we change the fundamental way we regard and value “aquatic hygiene,” we are destined to fall prey to our own neglect.
Next time you drink a glass of clear, refreshing water or take a dip in a sparkling pool or inviting hot tub, think about all those elusive factors that impact water quality and how those unseen elements will affect your health. Yes, the pursuit of superior water quality is an idealistic journey, but it’s also the ultimate practical concern. I believe we owe it to ourselves, each other, and the planet to look beyond that which immediately meets the eye.