Dear Mr. Dad: At the pool near my house there are a lot of little kids who wear diapers in the water. And I’m guessing there are a lot of other little kids who should be wearing diapers but are just peeing in the pool. Our pool just switched from using chlorine to keep the water clean to some kind of salt. Should we be worried about the quality of the water we’re swimming in?
A: I sure would. Until recently, most public pools (that includes pools at private health clubs that are used by lots of people) used chlorine to disinfect the water. And that was a good thing: just think of all the dirt and sweat on people’s bodies (not everyone takes a shower like they’re supposed to), bacteria, suntan lotions, urine, and everything else that ends up in the water—and often in our mouths.
But highly chlorinated water can irritate the eyes and dry out the skin. So a lot of pools cut back on the amount of chlorine they put in the water. And others, like yours, have switched to alternate disinfectant methods such as specially formulated salts (which chemically generate a healthier kind of chlorine). The problem is that while these alternate cleaning methods are less toxic, they’re also often less effective. And even though you’re justifiably concerned about people peeing in the pool, there are bigger things to worry about. Bigger and smellier.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released a study of the water quality in 161 swimming pools in and around Atlanta, Georgia. They found that 58 percent of the samples contained e. coli bacteria, which are typically found in our intestines and feces—and do not belong in swimming pools. Some types of e coli are harmless, but others can cause all sorts of unpleasant symptoms, from simple stomach aches and nausea to fever, vomiting, diarrhea, meningitis, and even death.
There’s only one explanation for how e coli is getting into pools: people are either bringing it with them (by not showering thoroughly before getting in the water) or putting it there (by having “fecal incidents” or “diarrheal incidents”). Yuck. I suppose it’s possible that Atlantans are more likely to do these things than residents of other parts of the country, but I’m guessing that pools everywhere are just as polluted.
The result? According to the CDC report, incidents of recreational water illness (RWI), which cause acute gastrointestinal illness, have been steadily increasing for the past few decades. The major culprits are disease-producing organisms that are “transmitted by the fecal-oral route.” Yuck again.
Okay, now that you’re completely disgusted, let’s talk about what we can do about this problem.
- Take a pre-swim shower. The CDC says that the average person has .14 grams of fecal matter on their bottom. That may not sound like much, but when you multiply that by the thousands of people who use a pool, well, it’s best not to think about that.
- Stay out of the pool if you have—or recently had—diarrhea. That should be pretty obvious, but unfortunately, it’s not.
- If you’ve changed a child’s diaper (or used the toilet yourself), wash your hands thoroughly.
Fourth, make sure your kids take mandatory bathroom breaks every hour.
- Try to keep your mouth closed.
- Finally, check with the people who maintain your pool and ask them to make sure the disinfectant and pH levels of the water meet state and local public health guidelines.