It’s summertime and as the temperatures rise many people are heading to the pools to find some much-needed relief.
That relief may come at a cost, however. If not managed properly, public pools, hot tubs and water play areas can be an important breeding grounds for micro-organisms, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They also reported that one in three swimming-related disease outbreaks could be traced back to hotel pools.
Public water facilities may host a number of germs that cause recreational water illnesses (RWI), says Dr. Naresh Kumar, an environmental health expert at the University of Miami Health System. These can include cryptosporidium, shigella, legionella, E. coli, giardia and norovirus. “It is important to remember that chlorine doesn’t instantly kill these pathogens,” he says. “So, even if a pool is treated that doesn’t mean it is germ-free.”
A persistent parasite
The CDC reports that a parasite called Cryptosporidium (or crypto for short) can survive in chlorinated water for days. It is found in human and animal excrement and is spread by drinking contaminated water. It is responsible for “58 percent of outbreaks where a germ was identified linked to pools, hot tubs, and water playgrounds and 89 percent of the illnesses.”
The most common symptom that infected people have is one to two weeks of watery diarrhea. Adults who are otherwise healthy generally recover without treatment but in infants, crypto is the second highest cause of diarrhea-related deaths.
More doesn’t mean better
You may assume that adding more chlorine might do a better job of killing RWI-causing organisms but that is not necessarily the case. A study performed by some of Dr. Kumar’s students affirmed the presence of bacteria in chlorinated pools. They took samples from local public pools and were surprised to see the most bacteria growth in a sample from a pool where the chlorine smell was particularly strong.
Also, according to Dr. Kumar, most chlorinated pools and hot tubs have their own set of health risks, especially if they are indoors. “Chlorine can produce a noxious layer of gas above the water,” he explains. “This gas can cause flare up airway disease, such as asthma.”
Tips for healthy swimming
If you’ve read this far, you may be wary of public pools. The good news is that if you follow these tips, you help protect yourself and others from these health concerns.
- If you are already sick, especially if you are experiencing diarrhea and/or food poisoning, stay out of the water.
- Make sure you rinse off BEFORE you get into the water. This makes a huge difference in spreading disease. The least amount of bacteria growth in pools was found when more people showered before they entered the pool, according to Dr. Kumar’s work.
- Take regular bathroom breaks, and if you have children in diapers, check and change them every hour.
- Check the facility’s inspection reports and ask about how often they drain their pool. The kid’s pools in particular had a substantially higher bacteria count, according to the UM-led research.
- Buy testing strips to check the water’s chlorine and pH levels. You can also order strips for free here.
- Don’t pee in the pool. When a lot of people pee in the pool, the ammonia in urine mixes with chlorine and creates chloramine. Chloramine causes respiratory irritation and red eyes. Additionally, higher levels of ammonia in a pool makes the chlorine less effective.
- Lastly, take caution to not swallow pool water accidentally. If you do, rinse your mouth right after coming out of the pool water.
If available, swim in salt water pools. Many hotels and other public places are moving away from chlorine-treated pools and hot tubs. “Saltwater pools are much better for your health, given salt is a natural disinfectant,” says Dr. Kumar.
Natasha Bright is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News Blog. Her writing has also been featured on the Huffington Post and Scary Mommy websites.