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Survey finds many swimmers unaware of potential health risks

Millions of people will soon head to their local pool, but a new survey finds many swimmers are not aware they might be wading into potential health risks at the pool.

The annual Healthy Pools survey, conducted by the Water Quality & Health Council, found 63 per cent of adults in the U.S. have never checked health inspection reports before swimming in a public pool, with another 15 per cent checking those reports only sparingly. In response, the Water Quality & Health Council, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Swimming Pool Foundation® (NSPF®) are teaming up to get the word out about healthy and safe swimming before Memorial Day weekend.

These survey findings are especially concerning in light of the 2016 CDC report which found nearly eight in 10 routine inspections of public pools turned up at least one violation of health and safety rules, and one in eight found problems so serious the pool had to be closed immediately.

“Swimmers and parents of young bathers can take a few simple but effective steps to help protect themselves and their families from germs to maximize fun at the pool,” said Michele Hlavsa, RN, MPH, epidemiologist, and chief of the CDC’s Healthy Swimming Program. “Stay out or keep your kids out of the water if sick with diarrhea, check the pool’s latest inspection score, and do your own mini-inspection before getting in the water.”

In the national survey, bathers admitted to some unhealthy swimming habits, including:

  • Most adults (52 per cent) never shower before swimming. Only 29 per cent shower for at least one minute, the length of time needed to remove most contaminants from a swimmer’s body.
  • One in four swimmers (27 per cent) admits they have peed in the pool as an adult.
  • The number of adults who said they would swim within one hour of having diarrhea (17 per cent) is also alarming. This is especially concerning because Cryptosporidium (Crypto), a microscopic parasite, is the most common cause of diarrheal illness linked to pools.

“Swimming is a rite of summer, but swimmers’ unhealthy habits can make loved ones sick,” said Dr. Chris Wiant, chair of the Water Quality & Health Council. “We all share the water we swim in. Although chlorine and other pool chemical disinfectants are effective at disinfecting pools, they might be used up by contaminants, such as urine, sweat, and dirt from bathers’ bodies.

“Chlorine mixing with these contaminants is what makes swimmers’ eyes red, not chlorine in and of itself. Protect yourself and loved ones by showering before going in the pool and do not pee in the water.”

Swimmers might be able to check pool inspections online or on-site at the pool facility. The health department typically inspects public (non-residential) pools. The City of Toronto, for example, the public health department regularly monitors conditions at the city’s public pool and spa facilities to ensure bathers have a safe and healthy swim experience. As part of the city’s Swim Safe program, a platform for recreational water inspection and disclosure, Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) as regulated under Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act, regularly inspect public pools and spas.

“Before you go to or get in the water, ask if they have Certified Pool/Spa Operators on staff,” said NSPF CEO, Thomas Lachocki, Ph.D.

In the U.S., the Water Quality & Health Council has compiled a list of local and state health departments that provide online access to pool inspection reports. If a local community or state is not listed, it is suggested residents contact their local or state health department, or ask the pool’s manager directly for more information.

Well-maintained pools are less likely to spread germs. Swimmers can keep healthy before getting in the water by checking the pool’s latest inspection results, as well as by making sure the drain at the bottom of the deep end is visible. Test strips can also be used to confirm the water’s chlorine or bromine level and pH are correct. The CDC recommends a pH level of between 7.2 and 7.8, with free chlorine concentration of at least 1 parts per million (ppm) in pools and at least 3 ppm in hot tubs/spas, and free bromine concentration of at least 3 ppm in pools and at least 4 ppm in hot tubs/spas.

The Water Quality & Health Council is offering free pool test kits through its Healthy Pools awareness initiative. Swimmers can use the kit to measure chlorine levels and pH in backyard or public pools. They can also pack them in their luggage to check hotel, motel, and theme park pools while on vacation.

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