As the summer of 2020 was coming to a close, a buzz was sounding among those in the swimming pool industry — chlorine was becoming scarce, and it wasn't going to get better anytime soon.
Industry experts knew what a chlorine shortage would mean: Pool owners would be left scrambling for the pool sanitizer and spending much more per bucket, possibly hoarding the tablets or looking for alternatives to keep their pools clean and safe.
But at the time, the public remained largely unaware, more focused on the global COVID-19 pandemic and the heated presidential election. Cooler weather was also coming and pools across the country were beginning to close. The fallout from the "Great Chlorine Shortage of 2020" wouldn't be realized until the warmer weather returned in the spring.
Fast forward to 2021. Just as quickly as spring flowers began to blossom and pools began to open, so did word of the chlorine shortage, leaving pool owners in a lurch.
"Last year was a perfect storm," for a chlorine shortage, says Rudy Stankowiz, a pool water chemistry expert and CEO of Aquatic Facility Training & Consultants. He's built a recent following during the chlorine crisis for dubbing it "poolmageddon." Stankowiz blames COVID-19 for the increased demand for chlorine, as well as the destruction of a major chlorine plant for creating a rather nasty kink in the supply chain. And here's why:
In early 2020, when news first broke that the coronavirus had landed on U.S. soil, Americans scrambled to buy up hand sanitizers to protect themselves from the virus. Just as demand for the products began to soar, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warnings to consumers that some hand sanitizers contained methanol, a substance that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested.
Prompted by the additional strain on hand sanitizer products, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued recommendations on hand hygiene. In cases where soap and water or alcohol-based hand rubs are not available, the CDC recommended some DIY handwashing solutions that included chlorine water made from chlorine powder.
Another strain on chlorine demand came from the boom in residential pools. With amusement park and event venue closures and travel restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID, people were stuck at home to find their own form of entertainment. The money they would have spent on vacations was now being funneled into backyard swimming pools.
"Pools were a popular go-to item to install," Stankowiz says. "And as a result, the industry grew 14 percent last year during the pandemic. So, we have more water in people's backyards than ever before creating more and more demand."
But the biggest hit came Aug. 27, 2020, when Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 hurricane packing 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour) winds, hit southwest Louisiana, triggering a fire in BioLab's chlorine and disinfectant manufacturing plant. BioLab is the largest chlorine producer in the United States, making at least 70 percent of the chlorine tablets used by pool owners in America, Stankowiz says. The chlorine plant, just west of Lake Charles, burned for more than 50 hours.
Chlorine Shortage Fallout
The fire completely shut down BioLab's production of chlorine tablets. In the weeks and months that followed, warehouse supplies began to dwindle, and chlorine tablets became scarce. As a result, the price of chlorine began to skyrocket. According to IHS Markit data cited by Goldman Sachs, chlorine prices are 37 percent higher now than they were last spring. For reference, a 25-pound (11-kilogram) bag of chlorine tablets costs about $135 today compared to $89 in May 2020, Stankowiz says.
Don't expect the chlorine shortage to end this summer, he adds. BioLab's production of chlorine tablets isn't expected to return to normal levels until April 2022. Meanwhile, demand for chlorine is expected to increase as the number of residential swimming pools continues to grow into 2021. According to Pool Corp., a pool supply company, about 110,000 new pools are expected to be added in the U.S. this year — an increase of more than 20 percent over 2020's numbers.
What that means is pool owners can expect to pay about 58 percent more for chlorine in June, July and August 2021 compared to last year, according to HIS Markit.
Are There Any Alternatives to Chlorine Tablets?
Chlorine is a necessary chemical to keep swimming pools safe and clean. When added to swimming pool water, it forms hypochlorous acid, a mild disinfectant that prevents the growth of algae. Chlorine kills bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, and germs that cause viruses like diarrhea and swimmer's ear. Even saltwater pools generate chlorine to keep pool water safe, Stankowiz says.
But what can pool owners do if they can't get their hands on chlorine tablets? First, other types of chlorine or chlorine compounds in liquid or powder forms can also be used, according to Water Safety Magazine. These should be more readily available in stores as well, Stankowiz says.
There are also hacks that pool owners can use that enable them to use less chlorine or use other products like bleach, adds Stankowiz, who wrote an entire book dedicated to the topic — How to Get Rid of Swimming Pool Algae — conveniently released last February.
Doing your homework before altering the chemicals in your pool is strongly recommended. According to the CDC, pool chemical injuries send about 4,500 people to U.S. emergency departments each year.
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Now That's Interesting
This isn't the first time there's been a chlorine shortage. Chlorine is also used to treat water supplies in both municipal and rural water systems, and in 1973, a shortage threatened drinking water supplies in cities across the United States, according to The New York Times. The cause was not fully understood though some blame was placed on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for increasing the demand for chlorine by requiring chlorination of wastewater. However, the EPA amended the Safe Water Act after this incident to ensure municipalities would always have priority access to chlorine for safe drinking water.
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