That is the summer question

By Lauren Wolf
From the June 2014 issue

peeI don’t really remember the first time I peed in the ocean.

But it must’ve been when I was a little girl, during one of my family’s numerous summer vacations to the Jersey shore. We rented the same property in Wildwood Crest year in and year out: a modest three-bedroom apartment just blocks from the beach.

What I do remember is a yearning to never leave the water, for my dad to throw me into a salty green wave one more time while shouting, “Uh-oh, Spaghetti-o!” My guess is that I first did it during one of those marathon splash sessions. If you spend enough time in the ocean that your fingers get wrinkly, your lips turn blue, and you have sand in unspeakable places, trudging back across the white-hot pavement to a rental house isn’t really an attractive bathroom option. I’m sure my parents weren’t in favor of escorting their dripping, pruney child to and fro throughout the afternoon and gave their consent.

Today, my husband and I continue the shore visits with my niece, taking her to the southern beaches each year. During our first year in the water, at the tender age of 8, my niece was hesitant. I told her she could relieve herself in the water, and she looked at me with embarrassment. Clearly, I was not hip. Clearly, I had missed that day of potty training.

Fast-forward four years, and my darling niece pees in the ocean with the best of them. It’s now my husband who needs convincing: He refuses to go. To address his noncompliance, my niece and I have become a floating vaudeville act, forcing him between us as we put on a show.

Me:  “Hey there, you said you had to pee.”
Darling niece: “Yup. I just did.”
Me: “Oh, good. Me too. So that’s done with. Hey, Hubs — you feel that warm spot?”
(Before I go any further, I should interject to say that I do not advocate peeing on coral reefs, in pools or other small bodies of water — ponds, pristine lakes in the Alps, etc. But oceans?)

Having failed with our comedic act, my niece and I changed tactics. We decided to use science (in particular, chemistry) to reason with our reluctant (yet very tolerant) companion. Using the WiFi at the beach house last summer, we mounted our case.

Exhibit A:
Urine is the vehicle by which your body gets rid of undesirable chemical compounds. But that doesn’t mean the compounds you’re excreting are necessarily harmful to anyone (although, again, I should interject here and say I don’t recommend drinking pee or getting it in one’s eyes). For instance, according to a study by NASA, the average human’s urine is more than 95 percent water, and it contains one to two grams per liter of sodium and chloride ions. OK, so water + salt: These happen to be molecular species found in seawater. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the ocean is about 96.5 percent water, and it contains a lot more salt — about 19 grams per liter of chloride and 11 grams per liter of sodium. So far, so good.

There are other salt ions in each of these liquids, but at lesser concentrations. For instance, potassium in urine has a concentration of about 0.75 grams per liter, and potassium in seawater is at 0.4 grams per liter. Nothing drastically different here.
Where the composition of a person’s urine strays a bit from that of seawater is with the components creatinine and urea. Both are used by the body to get rid of nitrogen. Present in the average person’s urine at about 0.7 grams per liter, creatinine is a nitrogen-heavy breakdown byproduct of energy-laden molecules in our muscles. Urea, on the other hand, is more concentrated: It’s present at about 9 grams per liter. Because it’s high in nitrogen, the molecule is frequently used as a fertilizer, but it’s also applied in topical creams as a moisturizing factor.

Exhibit B:
Everything’s relative. It seems like urea might be a problem, given that it comes rushing out of us humans at rather high concentrations. When it breaks down in water, it forms ammonium — a charged molecule sucked in by plants and converted into nutrients. Again, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, nitrogen-containing compounds are important parts of seawater because “they are important for the growth of organisms that inhabit the oceans and seas.”

Still, maybe 9 grams per liter is too much. So I give you a little calculation:

According to Stuart Jones, a biochemist in the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at King George Hospital, in East London, a person excretes between 0.2 and 0.5 liters of urine during a typical potty break — about 3 grams of urea per go. There are 7 billion people on the planet. Let’s just say that all of us relieved ourselves in the Atlantic Ocean at once (the Atlantic and its adjacent seas have a collective volume of 3.5 x 1020 liters, a designation that might not mean much to the average person, but suffice to say it’s a lot of water). After that mass bathroom break, the urea excreted would amount to about 0.00000000006 grams per liter, a pretty tiny concentration for a highly unlikely situation in just one of the world’s oceans.

As Jones says, “Of course this assumes the urine would be evenly distributed throughout the entire ocean, which would take rather a long time, but you get the point!”

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