The pee predicament

“To pee or not to pee?” That is the question currently being debated by environmental groups and the American Chemical Society on relieving oneself in our oceans.

“To pee or not to pee?” That is the question currently being debated by environmental groups and the American Chemical Society on relieving oneself in our oceans.

A recently released video by the ACS claims that if you must go, go without feeling guilty. In fact, the society, an association of professional chemists and chemical engineers, claims human urine can be beneficial to the health of the waters. Whales do it — up to 970 litres of urine per day, per whale. And so do other countless species of marine life, but not in the quantities expelled by whales.

On the other side of the debate, a recent CBC report says “people concerned about raw sewage being dumped into the oceans by cities like Victoria, B.C., have expressed concern about the message promoted in the video.”

Christianne Wilhelmson, of the Georgia Strait Alliance, says “There are people who don’t believe sewage treatment is necessary. And they’ll use this (video) information to mislead communities.”

On the other hand, Peter Ross, an ocean pollution expert at the Vancouver Aquarium, told CBC that peeing in the ocean may be a concern in places where there are lots of people. But “I think we’re probably talking mostly about etiquette here.”

The ACS’s research on that bodily function might raise some eyebrows and prompt the question: “Is there not more important issues to deal with?”

But the topic has merit.

The ACS claims peeing in the ocean is not only harmless, it’s actually good for marine life. The video states that urea, the main waste product in urine, is rich in nitrogen, which combines with ocean water to produce ammonium. In turn, ammonium feeds ocean plant life that is beneficial in maintaining a healthy ecosystem below the surface.

So why does this nitrogen occur naturally? The ACS says: “As our bodies break down proteins in food, urea is the leftover compound that gets rid of the excess nitrogen in our bodies.”

So how much urea is too much for our oceans to handle? The ACS uses this example: “the volume of the Atlantic Ocean is 350 quintillion (that’s 18 zeros) litres. If everyone (in the world) went to the toilet in that ocean, there would still be a miniscule 60 parts per trillion of urea in the water.”

The ACS adds to its conclusions that human urine is about 95 per cent water and also containing sodium and chloride. Sea water is about 96.5 per cent water and also contains sodium and chloride, but obviously in much higher proportions.

But the ecosystems in all waters are not created equally. The chemical society is quick to discourage relieving oneself in protected areas such as reefs or smaller bodies of water, especially swimming pools.

Researchers warn that urinating in swimming pools could lead to health problems. An article published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology says scientists found that compounds in urine mixed with chlorine “can cause chemicals that have been linked to respiratory effects.”

“If swimmers avoided urinating in pools, then air and water quality would likely improve independent of other changes in water treatment or air circulation,” wrote scientists from China Agricultural University and Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind.

Our sensitive oceans are taking a brutal beating from human practices: they are abused as massive garbage dumps, over-fished and frequently challenged by chemical and energy-related spills. It’s probably best, at least for the sake of decorum, if we go to the washroom before we plunge into the ocean. But if you forget, it’s not the end of the world.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.

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