There are two things I avoid at all costs: rockmelon and public restrooms at the beach. I’m no doctor, but avoiding the latter seems like a healthy choice. The stalls are never clean, and there’s always water everywhere. But avoiding these bacteria-friendly beach lairs takes some real planning. You either have to hold it, walk to the nearest restaurant, or pee in the ocean.
On a recent trip, my friends tried to convince me to relieve myself in the surf instead of walking out of our way to find a toilet. I simply couldn’t do it, I said. I didn’t know what the dangers were. Could it attract sharks? I watch a lot of Grey’s Anatomy, and wondered about bacterial infections that could occur. Most importantly, I worried it would hurt the fish and their ecosystem.
My friends told me I was crazy. That I was wasting precious beach time. But I wanted answers before I did the deed. So, I took matters into my own hands.
Does peeing in the ocean hurt the fish?
This is a question I posed to Andrew J. Esbaugh, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute. The answer is no. And this has a lot to do with the chemical composition of urine. First of all, if you’re healthy, your urine should be about 95% water (this is why you hear about survivalists drinking their pee when water is in short supply). According to Live Science, it also contains about 3,000 other compounds, some of which include sodium, chloride, and potassium, which the ocean also contains, according to the American Chemical Society.
And here is the game changing part of urine: Urea. It helps our bodies get ride of excess nitrogen. When this nitrogen combines with water, it creates ammonium, which feeds ocean plant life, such as algae, Esbaugh explains. Although extreme amounts of nitrogen aren’t good for the ecosystem, the small amounts of urea we produce feed into the ocean’s nitrogen cycle. You could go so far as to say that your pee is one of many factors contributing to the circle of life in the ocean — meaning it’s not hurting the fish.
Does pee pollute the ocean?
As we mentioned above, not really. The American Chemical Society goes so far as to use the idiom: Your pee is just a “drop in the ocean.”
With that said, there are a few important exceptions. Never pee near a coral reef. CNN reported that reefs near Mexico’s Quintana Roo province are suffering because of human waste spilled into the ocean by tourists visiting the region. "There are a lot of nutrients going into the ground water caused by treated water from the hotels and municipal waste water treatment plants," environmentalist Paul Sanchez-Navarro told CNN. "They inject the water into the ground and that makes its way into the aquifer... We've found way too many nutrients — nitrates and phosphates — and that comes from human waste, mostly urine.”
Small lakes are another place you shouldn’t tinkle. You might want to just get out of the water and find a toilet. TIME Magazine reported in 2012 that a lake in Germany had to close because of "an algae bloom that poisoned over 500 fish.” Some researchers blamed this on a ton of urine in the lake.
Esbaugh says that’s on par with science. “If you have a lot of nitrogen, that’s going to create more algae and microorganism booms, and that could cause a disturbance.”
Does pee attract sharks?
This is a question that National Geographic researchers were also curious about. During a large-scale experiment called Human Shark Bait, they put two divers in the water at the same time. One was holding a bottle of urine, which he slowly poured into the water. The other diver didn’t bring any pee to the table. Researchers tracked the brains of white sharks as this was happening. No reaction.
From a scientific standpoint, Esbaugh says that it’s “definitely not true” that sharks are attracted to urine, and he assumes the rumour got started because many animals use scent to track their prey. But he says this doesn’t hold up because humans aren’t the most common meal for sharks. Fish are. And our urine is chemically different from actual shark bait. Our urine contains urea, while theirs contains ammonia. He adds: “There’s also so much background urea in the coastal environment that it’s going to be hard to track,” he says.
Will peeing in the ocean give me a yeast infection?
Although staying in a wet swimming suit for too long can make you more prone to a yeast infection, wet is wet. And you’re not much more likely to contract a yeast infection if your bathing suit bottoms are soaked with ocean water or pee.
Esbaugh adds that bacterial infections aren’t likely either. “There are bacteria in the ocean that are dangerous, [like] parasites, but infections to do with those are not related to a bacteria bloom,” he says. “Those are more to do with freak accidents, like if someone steps on an oyster shell, doesn’t clean it, and is in the water all day.”
Can I pee in the pool though?
It’s not recommended. A study published in Environmental Science and Technology found that peeing in a pool with chlorine can create a toxic chemical which is called cyanogen chloride. With that said, Science News points out that “it’s fair to say that details aside, it would take a heck of a lot of urine to turn a pool so toxic that it would kill you outright.”
So, as it turns out, my friends were right, and I was wrong. Go forth and relieve yourself out there in the big blue sea.