Health hazards of water in public pools

Jul 14, 2013

Public pools are a community hotspot during the summer to cool off, but could they be harmful to your health? This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Michele Hlavsa, chief of the Centers for Disease Control's Healthy Swimming Program, on how to be cautious when using public pools this summer.

Click 'Read More' to hear out interview with Michele Hlavsa.

The CDC conducted a new study in summer 2012 of Atlanta-area public pools and found that 58 percent of pool filters contained e. coli , a bacteria most people associate with food-borne illnesses. But the strand of E. coli found in pools is much different than the one you would find in uncooked meat. Hlavsa says that the discovery of E. coli signals that there is fecal matter in pools.

Hlavsa says that each year, CDC is notified of 20 to 80 outbreaks of acute gastro-intestinal illness having to do with swimming pools across the country. She added that most of these people get sick because another swimmer is already ill before going into the water, and spread the disease to others.

“I think sometimes we think so much about taking a shower after we swim, that we forget to take one before,” she said, adding that a pre-swim shower can be key in keeping the spread of diseases in the pool to a minimum. Even a quick 15 or 30 second shower can make a difference, said Hlavsa.

Swimmers who are ill with diarrhea cause a huge risk for fellow swimmers, and should avoid swimming, says Hlavsa, so they don’t spread their illness to other swimmers.

Swimming in public pools can also give rise to skin rashes, mostly due to getting into a pool or hot tub with bad chlorine and pH levels.

Here are some tips Hlavsa offered to make sure you stay healthy when you’re at the pool this summer:

  • Check your baby’s diaper: parents of young children should do a check every 30 to 60 minutes. Make sure to change your baby’s diaper away from the pool so the fecal matter has less of a chance of making it into the pool.
  • Take a bathroom break: at least every hour, make sure you and your children take a bathroom break.
  • Check out the pH levels: many pools will post their pH levels or have them available if you have any questions. If the pH is in the right zone (7.2 to 7.8), then it helps chlorine to better fight off germs. You can even use your own test strips, which you can find at your local pool supply store.
  • Minimize the amount of water you swallow: the water carries the bacteria that makes you sick, so don’t swallow it. Watch out for children, who are more likely to do this.
  • Be diligent about hot tubs: most people don’t think about hot tub safety. Make sure you take the same precautions as you would for a pool.