News: Most Pools Contain Dangerous Fecal Bacteria — Here's How to Stay Safe

Most Pools Contain Dangerous Fecal Bacteria — Here's How to Stay Safe

With summer just ahead, you, or your children, may be looking forward to some pool time or the water park. When planning water-based fun this year, keep a heads-up for microbes.

Between the germs on the bodies of swimmers and fecal material in the water, the clean looks of the neighborhood swimming pool can be deceiving. For municipal and other pools, it is pretty inviting to cannonball into the pool for a refreshing dip on a hot day. But did you ever stop to think what happens to the microbes that live on your body? With a group in a pool, it is pretty much a collective bathtub.

Germs that turn up in swimming pool water include bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella, Camplobacter, noroviruses, and parasites. While treatment with chlorine can kill germs in swimming pools, it takes time for the chlorine to do its job. Sometimes enough time for you to become sick from a mouthful of water you accidentally swallow. Even in properly treated and maintained pools, it can take an hour or so for pathogens to die. In the case of a parasite called Cryptosporidium, often called crypto, it can take over a week.

Cryptosporidium is a parasite somewhat tolerant to chlorine, that can make you sick after a day in the pool. Image via CDC

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidence of crypto-associated swimming pool outbreaks has doubled since 2014. As part of the 13th Annual Healthy and Safe Swimming Week, happening from May 22-28, 2017, the CDC is focusing on Crypto this year.

Campaigning on the theme of "Diarrhea and Swimming Don't Mix," the agency is highlighting the problem of crypto in swimming pools. During the 2016 summer season, there were three larger outbreaks of crypto in the US. In July 2016, 36 members of a Little League team and their family became ill after swimming at a Maricopa County facility in Arizona. In August in Alabama, 23 people were confirmed in one crypto outbreak at an aquatic facility. In Ohio in 2016, annual crypto cases increased almost by a factor of five. Ohio cases involving outbreaks associated with recreational swimming pools soared to 1,940 cases, from an average of 399 annual cases.

Symptoms of crypto begin within ten days of exposure and include vomiting, fever, and stomach pain. Symptoms cycle for several weeks and can be serious, or even fatal, for young children, pregnant women, or people with chronic illness or compromised immune systems.

How You Get Sick from a Day in the Pool

Because pathogens float around in pool water, everyday swimming actions — like getting dunked, spitting water, or just taking a swallow of pool water — can be infectious. In addition to crypto, the types of illness you could bring home from a pool include:

  • Outer ear infection: Germy pool water trapped in the ear canal causes infections that send about 2.4 million Americans to the doctor each year.
  • Diarrhea: Like crypto, Giardia, noroviruses, and E. coli can all cause disease, even in a well-maintained pool — it only takes a mouthful.
  • Respiratory infection: Legionella, better known as Legionnaires' disease, can be caught through inhaling aerosolized droplets in swimming pools or hot tubs harboring the pathogen.

The bottom line is that anybody can get sick, even from a well-maintained swimming pool. So — what can you do to keep yourself and others safe?

Stay Safe from Pool Pathogens with These Tips

Improve your chances of avoiding waterborne illness by considering these pointers:

  • Keep your mouth closed: It is tough, but try not to swallow pool water. Bear in mind the microbes you cannot see, and what they can do to your body, to make it easier.
  • Get clean before you go swimming: Whatever is on your body is going into the pool. Do you want to swallow the germs on the body of the stranger next to you? Neither do they. So take a shower, preferably with soap, before entering a pool. If you have children, pay special attention to their behinds, since it is generally children under five that bring and dispense fecal material in to pools. It is not just children though, the average person has fecal material on their rear end that washes off in the water. When you are in a pool next — look around — the bioload in the water is probably not what you bargained for when planning your pool day.
  • While swimming: If you go swimming, take a bathroom break every hour, and be sure children do too — even if they say they don't have to go. Change swim diapers routinely in the bathroom, not on the pool deck.
  • If you have Crypto: Do not go swimming and avoid contact with anyone with chronic illness, or sexual practices that could result in oral exposure to feces if you have crypto. Wash your hands often. Children diagnosed with crypto should stay home from childcare environments until they no longer have diarrhea.

Any water that could contain microscopic feces should be considered contaminated. Whether it is a mountain stream or lake, a swimming pool or hot tub, or the local water park, you and your family should remember to be clean when going in the water, and remember not to ingest pool water if possible. Try to make sure your day at the pool brings home only good memories — and not infections.

Cover image by Michael Williams

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