Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
Some of my earliest sense memories are of blank shower room walls and locker room echoes. Before her multiple shoulder surgeries, my mom swam laps every morning before sunrise, and before I was put in school, I’d be brought along to float. During middle school summers, the Jolly Roger Swim Club occupied entire days for a packed lawn of families, and I was never out of the diving board’s conveyor loop. In high school, backyard pools and hot tubs kept my friends together and talking all summer break. Smell is the sense most tied to memory, and chlorine hangs thick across each.
That wonderful smell comes from chloramines, which form as the hypochlorous acid cleans the water, bonding to impurities. It’s also what burns your eyes and dries out your skin.
There was learning to swim, and then there was getting used to it. Feeling grown up meant jumping in the pool without pinching my nose. To be any good at the games—to spy a suspended golf tee or to cheat at Marco Polo—I had to be able to open my eyes underwater. My eyes got red and my skin itched sitting in my towel. The only thing to do was acclimate, but swimming still makes me sneeze.
Like most American pastimes (and America itself), modern swimming pools feel timeless and eternal to me despite being relatively recent. The first swimming pool was sanitized in 1910, when a graduate student at Brown University experimented on his campus’s pool. One part bleaching powder to a million parts water eradicated all bacteria in just fifteen minutes. It became a valid sanitization option, but the timing of war made chlorine monopolize. Recreational swimming was popularized in the US during World War I, as chlorine gas was being mass-produced for chemical warfare. What was keeping us safe abroad might be put to work in our backyards and public facilities too.
Maybe—at least that’s what I could gather, historically and chemically, from skimming this academic paper. My brain shut off seeing “3-chloro-4-dichloromethyl5-hydroxy-2(5H)-furanone.” I never latched onto chemistry, with all of those big code words. I know it’s useful to be chemically literal, but without context, there’s no immediate distinction between what’s deadly and what’s benign in name.
In any case, chlorination allowed swimming pools to become more forgettable features. Before, pools were simply filtered, with occasional complete drains and refills—such attention and ritual. Chlorination only requires the occasional “shock.” It took decades of work and research to get the balance right and takes a childhood to get used to, but I guess it’s worth not having to pay such attention anymore.
This fall, when my gym emailed to explain their phased reopening, I read that the locker rooms were being left to the safest and last stage. Who knows when that will be. Though I never even used their pool, I realized I didn’t want to go if I couldn’t begin and end by cleaning and changing in that bright, echoing chamber. The smell makes me feel bleached and safe. Now I need to experiment with other methods of feeling clean.