A cheeky wee in the sea is something that many people make a habit of when on holiday, but is it harmful to the environment? There is an assumption that urinating in the sea is not such a good idea because it contaminates the marine ecosystem. This is actually not true. Human urine does not harm the ocean or sea life in any way, in fact, some scientists say it is beneficial to marine plant life.
The American Chemistry Society recently published a video that seeks to ‘dilute’ the myths around the supposed problems of peeing in the sea, a practice which is less acceptable in a swimming pool.
Unlike sunscreens, which when dissolved in water release toxic components that pose a risk to the environment, urine is completely harmless. Pee is 95 percent water, so there is little that could be classed as a ‘toxic’ problem. The remaining five percent consists of sodium, potassium and chloride, substances all found naturally in seawater.
Not even the release of urea, a toxic substance produced by cellular metabolism, is unhygienic in proportion to the 350,000,000,000,000,000,000 litres of water in the sea. Even if everyone agreed and urinated at the same time, the amount of urea waste released would not exceed 60 litres per billion litres. The high level of nitrogen found in pee also contributes to the production of ammonium, which serves as food for marine plants.
The American Chemistry Society explain that humans aren't the only ones who can be founding urinating underwater. A single whale excretes 250 litres of urine a day, with this pee containing 23 times more sodium and chloride than humans.
If you find yourself bursting for loo while you’re on the beach and there’s no toilet in sight, there’s no need to put up with the discomfort - peeing in the ocean is a viable and harmless option, in most cases.
When urine in the sea is a problem
Despite urine being generally harmless to the sea, there are some specific areas where peeing in the sea is particularly bad for the environment. The coral reefs of Maya Bay in Thailand have been directly damaged as a result of urine in the sea. This area will be closed until 2021 to ensure its rejuvenation and future conservation.
It is nitrogen (found in urine) that causes algae to grow, and this is detrimental to coral.
Experts also say that drug chemicals in the human body passed into the sea by urine can damage coral reefs by altering the balance of microbes.
Most coral reefs are considered protected, which means there will be signage telling you what you can and cannot do in that area. Simply, check where you are before peeing in the sea - to make sure you’ll not be doing any damage,
"If there are many people urinating in an area that is not well renovated because it has little new water exchange, it could be a problem because excess nitrogen feeds algae growth, which has a negative impact on corals and other animals," explained Stephanie Wear, marine ecologist and senior scientist at The Nature Conservancy.
Even though urine is 95% water, it does also contain sodium ions and chloride, these are the same chemicals that make seawater salty. Pee is less salty than seawater, which makes ocean water a little less salty when mixed.
Urine is also full of waste products such as urea, which comes from breaking down proteins in the human diet, as well as bacteria and traces of medications such as antibiotics and contraceptives. Fortunately, one person peeing in the ocean won’t affect coral — the American Chemical Society says, the problem comes when human waste is dumped into the ocean in large quantities.
Even though it’s generally OK to pee in the sea if you’re caught short, you should really not make a habit of it.