Watch Out: Thousands of Pools Close Due to Health Violations
But you can swim safe(r) this summer
Public pools ready to open across the U.S. Memorial Day weekend signifies the unofficial start of summer, and kids and adults alike can’t wait to lounge in the sun and take a dip to cool off. But be careful – a report published recently in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report shows that thousands of public pools and hot tubs and other places where humans leave their nasty germs across the nation are closed every year because they violate serious health and safety standards.
Maybe it’s not something you give a lot of thought to, unless you have young children (you know what they say about the kiddie pool) or you’ve ever been evacuated from a public pool because poop was found floating in it (that was a fun day). Perhaps it’s something we should be paying attention to, eh?
There will always be bugs and leaves floating around in the pool, and that’s to be expected. That’s not a violation, that’s nature. I’m talking about the stuff that makes people sick. Out of more than 84,000 inspections of more than 48,000 places where people gather for a dip in chemically treated water in Texas, New York, Florida, Arizona, and California, 80% had at least 1 violation. One in 8 resulted in immediate closure of the venue because the violation was so severe.
Kiddie pools and wading pools top the list of most-gross places, with 1 in 5 having been closed at some point for at least 1 violation. Improper pH levels, safety equipment issues, and problems with the disinfectant concentration were the most common problems found at these venues.
Michael Beach, the CDC’s associate director for healthy water, told HealthDay:
“Young children who are still learning their toileting skills are more likely to contaminate the water. They’re more likely to swallow the water. Both of which can lead to outbreaks of diarrheal illness.”
He said that parents should check their child’s diapers – in the bathroom or changing rooms, not poolside – before he or she goes into the water, and they should take their child for an hourly bathroom break.
Let’s break down the grossest of the gross. In April, the journal Environmental Science & Technology published a study that showed that when chlorine and other disinfectants and chemicals are mixed with “human inputs” in the water – urine, sweat, and cosmetics – they form compounds called disinfection byproducts. More than 100 of these byproducts were discovered by researchers. Lab testing revealed that exposure to disinfection byproducts damaged cells, and may be linked to asthma, bladder cancer, and other health problems. 
If you’re not really a “pool person,” you can still get your share of disinfection byproducts by drinking your chlorinated tap water.
Chlorine and disinfectant chemicals are vital to making sure that swimming pools don’t turn into cesspools, though, and the authors of the study say these disinfection byproducts can be minimized by frequently exchanging water in pools, and making sure people shower before getting in.
You really, really need those chemicals. You see, according to Beach, the majority of contamination of pools and hot tubs is the result of people using them while suffering from diarrhea.
“Somebody who is ill with diarrhea has a release in the pool, and then it’s a very common occurrence to swallow pool water while you’re swimming.”
He went on to say that 1/4 of treated pool diarrhea outbreaks are associated with bacteria like Shigella, Campylobacter and E. coli that should have been eliminated by the chlorine and other chemicals. And when they’re not, Beach said, it’s the result of “very poor pool operation. You don’t have chlorine. Your pH is way off.”
Approximately 3/4 of outbreaks are related to cryptosporidiosis, a disease caused by a parasite that is very resistant to or tolerant of chlorine.
In 2013, the CDC warned that 60% of swimming pools contained traces of poop and spread E. coli, because swimmers either couldn’t make it to the toilet in time, or were too lazy to get out of the water to go.
Beth Bell, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases said in a statement to NY Daily News:
“No one should get sick or hurt when visiting a public pool, hot tub, or water playground. That’s why public health and aquatics professionals work together to improve the operation and maintenance of these public places so people will be healthy and safe when they swim.”
Most pools, hot tubs, and water parks aren’t regulated, and nearly 1/3 of local health departments don’t bother to inspect them.
So if you do decide to visit one of these public puddles of filth this summer, follow the advice of experts given above. And to be extra safe, you can purchase pH test strips at the supermarket and test the water yourself before jumping in.
As a general rule of thumb, if the water is so cloudy you can’t see the bottom of the pool, march your bottom to a cleaner venue.
Drinking out of the garden hose seems pretty sanitary now, doesn’t it?
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.