How healthy is the water in public pools?

Jul 14, 2013

Public pools and water parks are popular spots this time of year, but how healthy is the water in those pools? Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," spoke to Michelle Hlavas, the head of the Centers for Disease Control’s Healthy Swimming Program

Lorraine Rapp: Now most of us are familiar with the bacteria E. coli as a food borne illness, but according to the CDC, a study of public pools that was done during last summer’s swimming season found that 58 percent of pool filter samples contained E. coli. The study was done from Atlanta area public pools. Is that as alarming as it sounds, or is that pretty typical?

Michele Hlavas: We were not surprised by the results at all and actually the E. coli that you had mentioned, the one we associate with under cooked hamburger for example is very different from the e-coli we found in 58 percent  of the pools. So E. coli O157:H7 is what causes food-borne illness. We actually did test all the pools for that E. coli and we didn’t find any. We just looked for general E.  coli and that just indicates there’s fecal material present.

Lorraine Rapp: Do you do this every year? Is that 58 percent up from something last year? Is it on the rise, or this might be a typical season?

Michele Hlavas: Well this is the first time we did the study like this. We’re not surprised by the results. Each year we hear of 20 to 80 outbreaks associated with swimming across the U.S. Most of them are outbreaks of acute gastrointestinal illness or illnesses such as diarrhea or vomiting. And most of those are caused by people ill with these illnesses going into the water and spreading the germs that cause these illnesses to other swimmers.

Linda Lowen: This would be representative of what we might find in pools across the country?

Michele Hlavas: Exactly. Given that we see outbreaks across the U.S., we would expect what we found in Atlanta to be found in California, in New York, Florida, wherever.

Lorraine Rapp: So is it somebody that has an illness that then goes swimming and potentially can contaminate the water?

Michele Hlavas: The E. coli in and of itself is an indicator that the feces are getting into the water because of swimmers. This could be because they’re not taking a pre-swim shower. The bigger issue is people who swim while they’re ill with diarrhea. That becomes an issue because if they accidentally release that into the pool they’re potentially releasing germs into the pool that can spread to other swimmers. So it’s really important for swimmers not to swim while ill with diarrhea.

Linda Lowen: What other steps can we take to avoid contamination from pool water?

Michele Hlavas: We ask parents of young children to check their diapers every 30 to 60 minutes and change them away from the pool side so that fecal material doesn’t rinse into the pool. We also ask parents to take children on bathroom breaks every 60 minutes. And actually all swimmers should take bathroom breaks every 60 minutes.

Lorraine Rapp: Is there a way to judge how well a public pool or hot tub is being maintained?

Michele Hlavas: Well, some pools actually have now started testing their chlorine and pH levels; pH is important because if it’s in the right zone, chlorine’s potential to kill germs is maximized. We recommend that swimmers... they take pool test strips with them. And before they get into the water they can dip these strips into the water and check the chlorine and the pH. The chlorine level should be about 1 to 3 parts per million, or ppm, and the pH should be 7.2 to 7.8. The test strips are available at your local pool supply store, hardware story, big box store, and they run about $10 to 15.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.