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Swimming with Germs: The State of Public Pools

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s findings, about 339 million pool visits were made by people six years or older in 2006. Forty-one percent of kids ages seven to seventeen and 17.4 percent of adults went swimming an average of six times that year. That translates to a whole lot of people spending time together in the water, especially when the weather gets warmer. Thinking back, I remember spending most summer days at the pool when I was a kid, splashing around in the water with my friends. And if I think even harder, I recall all kinds of other sensory experiences, like the strong smell of chlorine and the slippery feel of the tiles against my feet.


I considered these things nostalgic aspects of my childhood, but then I learned that what I thought signaled the start of summer actually signals a nasty, germ-ridden pool. After reading about pool safety on the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC’s) Web site, I learned some pretty alarming facts about the state of public pools in this country. If you’re one of the millions of people planning a trip to one in the near future, here’s what you need to know to stay healthy and safe this season.


What’s in the Water?
In 2008, the CDC inspected public pools in thirteen states to make sure health codes were being enforced properly. One in eight pools checked was closed immediately because it failed to meet health standards. Inspectors found that kiddie pools—where children younger than six, and therefore especially vulnerable to disease, tend to hang out—were some of the worst offenders.


Speaking of disease, the CDC’s 2008 MMWR Surveillance Summaries report detailed data collected from recreational water facilities during 2005. The analysis focused specifically on waterborne illnesses arising from these facilities. Gastroenteritis, characterized by diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever, accounted for 91 percent of reported outbreaks; 74.4 percent of all cases happened at “treated water venues,” meaning that the water probably wasn’t as treated as it was supposed to be. The report’s authors concluded that what led to these illnesses included problems with maintenance and water quality.


As if these results weren’t bad enough, a 2009 survey from the Water Quality and Health Council showed that one out of five people admit to urinating in pools. However, 78 percent of all respondents believe their pool peers pee. Thirty-five percent of people don’t shower before jumping in the pool, either, so even if they don’t pee in the pool, they’re definitely bringing something unsavory into the water. Interestingly, 73 percent have noticed others not showering; as with urinating, there’s a big difference between what people admit to and what everyone else is seeing. Yet despite the flagrant grossness happening at pools all over the place, 63 percent of respondents had no clue about waterborne illnesses, and 16 percent didn’t even consider chlorine levels.


When Chlorine Doesn’t Help
Remember when I mentioned the nostalgic smell of chlorinated water? Well, according to the CDC’s Healthy Pools Web site, that smell actually meant that the pool I swam in was poorly managed. What we smell isn’t the presence of chlorine, but the presence of chloramines: compounds formed in the water when chlorine mixes with sweat, urine, sunscreen, perfume, and other substances swimmers bring into the pool with them. Along with creating a chemical odor, too many chloramines cause eye and skin irritation and can worsen respiratory problems. Their presence also indicates that there’s far too little chlorine in the pool. Sufficient chlorine should prevent these compounds from taking over, but when there are more nitrogenous substances (sweat, urine, etc.) in the water than germ-fighting chlorine, the substances eat up the chlorine and make a bacterial breeding ground instead.


Even when there’s enough chlorine, that doesn’t mean we’re free and clear. Cryptosporidium, a bacterial strain that’s the primary cause of gastroenteritis, can survive for days in properly treated water. Clearly, the best defense in the case of waterborne illnesses is a good offense.


How to Make Pools Healthier
Before you jump into any pool, the CDC recommends testing the water’s chlorine and pH levels. You can get free pool test kits by visiting its Healthy Pools Web site, where you’ll also find instructions on how to use and read the test strips accurately. The CDC also has a list of pre-immersion steps for both swimmers and parents of swimmers. All swimmers should avoid swallowing pool water, stay out of the water when sick (especially with diarrhea) to prevent spreading germs, and take a shower before jumping in. Parents should take kids out of the pool regularly for bathroom breaks and change their diapers in the bathroom, away from the water.


Swimmers also need to look out for telltale signs of unhygienic pool conditions, like strong chemical smells and slimy tile walls and floors. Don’t be afraid to ask the pool owner about the pool’s maintenance: how often pH and chlorine levels are checked (the answer should be at least twice, with more sessions during peak pool times), what grade the facility received from the health inspector, and so forth. And don’t forget to bring your free test kit to any public pool you visit this summer. It might draw a few curious looks from others, but that’s far more pleasant than dealing with waterborne diseases later.


And if you think putting strips in the water is overly cautious, consider this: the CDC found that waterborne illnesses have increased in the past twenty years. There’s definitely something in the water, and, based on the aforementioned survey, it’s probably urine or something equally cringe-worthy. Order the test, ask the right questions, and gain the peace of mind you need to have fun at the pool.



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