If you’ve ever frequented a swimming pool, it’s no doubt you’ve been told about a special chemical that can be added to the water that will activate a coloring agent in the water when you use the pool to *ahem* relieve yourself. It’s even been portrayed in several movies. Here’s a scene from 2010 family film “Grown Ups” in case you don’t know what I’m referring to.
How embarrassing! While we’ve all been warned to not pee in the pool, whether by owners or a strategically placed sign at a public pool, you should know: there is no such thing as pool urine indicator dye.
Supposedly, pool urine indicator dye is a substance that is able to react to urine in order to form a colored-cloud that will signify your transgression and publicly shame you. The fear of this dye activating is often enough to keep children and adults alike from relieving themselves in the water.
The myth of this dye has been around almost as long as the concept of public swimming pools. While references of its existence go back to the middle of the 20th century, many think the aquatic version of the boogie-man-under-the-bed stems back to a 1985 biography written about Orson Welles. In the book, author Barbara Leaming claims that Welles and a buddy pulled this prank on their friends in 1937. While I hate to contradict one of the country’s great directors, it’s doubtful that this was true. Although it’s hard to believe anything a guy says after he invoked nationwide panic with a deceptively realistic radio drama.
In reality, it’s hard to tell how long a myth has been a part of the public consciousness. Much like Santa Claus (sorry) and telling your kids that if they continue to make that face it will stay that way, the pool urine dye can be filed under “Lies Adults Tell Children so They Will Behave, Assorted.”
Despite the myth having originated in order to keep kids hygienic, there are some real life hazards that can be created from peeing in the pool (particularly one that is indoors). Urine can react with the sanitizers in the water and create a noxious gas that can be poisonous in high concentrations.
Pool sign makers have perpetuated this myth by making up product names like “wee alert” or something equally silly/catchy. Pool owners tack these up in pool houses and behind diving boards in the hopes of frightening kids into leaving the pool when it’s time to go. Because if we’re all honest with ourselves, NO ONE likes leaving the water and going across slippery cement or decking to peel off a wet swimming suit in order to use a public toilet. Ick.
According to scientists, you COULD make a dye that would react to urine. However, being in an aquatic environment where so many other chemicals and bits of organic matter are at play, it would be difficult to get it to react ONLY to urine. This could set off the dye at any number of inconvenient times that could humiliate an innocent swimmer. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much demand for this kind of product.
Pool supply stores are sometimes asked if they carry this mythical additive. Now you can tell your customers definitively “It does not exist!” But you’re welcome to perpetuate this piece of deterrent fiction as a parent or pool owner.
Movies and television are other culprits of the pool urine dye myth. As previously mentioned, “Grown Ups” includes a scene where Kevin James’ character embarrasses his daughter by using the shallow end of a kiddie pool as his personal urinal. Nickelodeon’s popular show “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” included the made up product as a plot device wherein the characters are trying to catch someone who has been peeing in the pool.
And one of my favorites is in the 2011 film “Take this Waltz” where Michelle Williams takes a water aerobics class with Sarah Silverman but finds all the moves far too silly. This ends up with her peeing in the pool full of geriatrics and triggering a humiliating evacuation. Ignore the Japanese subtitles (unless you speak Japanese).
Whether you continue to tell this lie is between you and your god, but just know: there is no such thing as pool urine indicator dye.