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Dr. Alfred Bernard, Ph.D., was never a lifeguard and has never won a medal for aquatic competition. Yet, despite the fact that he could not swim at all until age 30, Dr. Bernard is one of today’s leading researchers looking at how aquatic environments contribute to respiratory problems in children and teens.

Dr. Bernard, professor of toxicology and research director at Catholic University of Louvain, Brussels, Belgium, came to aquatics “by chance” while working on a research project. It was essentially comparing the respiratory health of children living in Brussels with children living in the Ardenne, a green region in the south of Belgium.

Unexpectedly, he and his team found that children living in the city of Brussels (with higher environmental pollution) showed fewer respiratory problems than their peers in the country. “When scrutinizing the environment and the lifestyle of the two groups of children, we discovered that those living in the countryside had attended more frequently, and also much earlier, swimming pools than those living in Brussels,” Bernard explains. “A more refined analysis brought to light significant associations between the levels of these biomarkers and the cumulative attendance at indoor swimming pools.”

Subsequent findings have led to the hypothesis that repeated exposure to chlorine-based oxidants in pools during childhood years could be contributing to the rising asthma and allergic diseases affecting affluent nations, and Bernard continues to explore the issue.

Some of his most significant work has been published in the European Respiratory Journal and the journal Pediatrics. In one study looking at teenagers, Bernard and his team found that asthma risk increased consistently with the number of hours the adolescents spent in outdoor pools. In another study, he compared teens who swam in chlorinated pools with a group that used pools sanitized with copper-silver systems. He found that those who swam in the chlorine pools were at approximately 8 times greater risk for asthma.

Bernard is currently involved in two ongoing studies, one of which is exploring various risk factors for childhood respiratory diseases, including swimming pools.

“We are also conducting a study to investigate the nonrespiratory effects of chlorination products, either at the level of the skin (eczema) or after percutaneous absorption,” he says. That study will again compare indoor and outdoor pools.

Bernard credits the development of new research tools with enabling the success of the studies. “Using [new] tests, we could noninvasively detect epithelial damage caused by chlorination products and also by ambient ozone, tobacco smoke, particulate matter and more recently by wood smoke.”

Ultimately, his hope is that pool managers will be encouraged to pay close attention to their pool chemistry and consider alternative methods of disinfection.

“This is a largely unexplored environment where children are exposed to pretty high concentrations of potentially toxic chemicals,” Bernard says, explaining his ongoing passion for his work. “If toxicologists show no interest in these chemicals, who will?”