Council nixes motion to study switch from chlorine to saltwater in public pools

Coun. Josh Matlow was pushing the city to consider switching from chlorine to saltwater pools - but Toronto council voted Wednesday against studying the plan, and provided no explanation.

Coun. Josh Matlow was pushing for city to consider switching to saltwater pools

The city operates 60 outdoor pools and 58 indoor pools. (Radio-Canada)

Toronto city council threw cold water on a proposal Wednesday to consider switching public pools from chlorine to saltwater.

They made the decision with no debate — and no explanation.

Coun. Josh Matlow, who represents Ward 22, St. Paul's, initially proposed that the city start looking into this idea early next year to find out whether the switch would even be possible. 

But council voted against putting any city resources toward the proposal, so Matlow's only hope is to reintroduce it at a later date. 

"We'll definitely be bringing this back up," said Andrew Athanasiu, Matlow's senior policy advisor. 

Matlow said he swims with his wife and daughter in a saltwater pool at a YMCA and wanted to share that experience with residents across the city.

"Torontonians are itching for a change and are taking chemical chlorine with a grain of salt," Matlow told CBC Toronto. 

In his proposal, Matlow said making the switch to saltwater would eliminate the chlorine smell and reduce the need to have hazardous chemicals delivered to recreation centres in the city.  

"It's time to join Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa area residents who are already enjoying saltwater pools for their health benefits and a better quality of swimming without the all-too familiar odours and irritations of traditional public pools," he said. 

Amidst heat waves in the height of summer in the city, Coun. Josh Matlow was pushing for Torontontians to swim in saltwater pools, which is what he does with his family at a YMCA. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam seconded the motion, and Toronto Mayor John Tory also declared his support.

"The better that we can operate in the context of environmentally-friendly, healthy ways to keep people safe in our swimming pools, I would be all in favour of that," Tory said. "But there are obviously implications you have to look at."

Those implications boil down to one question: how much would it cost?

But with 60 outdoor pools and 58 indoor pools operated by the city, the budget needed for a project like this is unknown. 

'The answer is yes' 

"Again there are cost and other kinds of implications to this, but if you said to me is this something we should be taking a look at? The answer is yes," Tory said.

Wong-Tam said she has received complaints in the past about skin and eye irritation from swimmers at public pools, and she's been asked if there would ever be a possibility of swapping chlorine for salt.

"If saltwater pools are perhaps more environmentally friendly, easier on sensitive eyes and non-sensitive eyes and easier to maintain, I don't see why we shouldn't try to convert some of our pools," Wong-Tam told CBC Toronto.

She also said many private and luxury pools in the city already operate using saltwater treatment.

"They seem to know something we don't," she said. "I think we thought the only option we had was to reduce the chlorine level." 

'Salt overall is better for the bather,' pool supplier says

In his proposal, Matlow said those irritating side-effects take place when chlorine levels fall, causing negative reactions between the chlorine by-product "chloramine" and bacteria from urine and other contaminants.

While saltwater pools still use the chemical, chlorine levels replenish themselves constantly instead of being manually maintained.

Getting rid of that lingering smell is just an added bonus.

"Using salt overall is better for the bather," said Dion Rodrigues, the director of marketing for Pool Supplies Canada. "The only downside is it's slightly more expensive to maintain." 

Although he couldn't estimate what a public pool in the city would cost to convert, an average residential pool costs $600 to $1,000 to switch treatments. 

But the benefit to this switch is reducing the danger chlorine poses to those who must manually maintain the chemical's levels, Rodrigues says.  

"The big risk for chlorine is really to the person who is handling it. It's corrosive."