Summer’s right around the corner, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is here to remind you that there’s nothing like a dip in a public pool — a place where you might encounter tiny bits of fecal matter, parasites like Cryptosporidium and volatile chemicals that can irritate your eyes or respiratory tract.
A report published Thursday warns that nearly 8 in 10 routine inspections of public pools turned up at least one violation of safety rules. In addition, about 1 in 8 of these inspections found problems so serious that the pool had to be closed immediately.
These disheartening statistics are based on 84,187 routine inspections of 48,632 public pools and other “aquatic venues” in Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Texas. Researchers focused on these five states because they are home to 40 percent of the nation’s estimated 309,000 public water play facilities.
The nearly 50,000 pools included in the analysis aren’t necessarily a representative sample of public pools throughout the country, and the study didn’t survey Idaho pools. But local experts say its results reflect the reality in Southwest Idaho, too.
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“We probably see a lot of the same things,” said Brian Crawford, environmental health director for Southwest District Health.
Health district inspectors check a range of issues: operations, water quality, safety equipment, mechanical equipment and the structural integrity of the buildings and pools.
15% of routine inspections in the CDC study found problems with a pool’s pH level
13% found problems with safety equipment
12% found problems with the concentration of disinfectants
Southwest District Health inspects 24 public pools in Adams, Canyon, Gem, Owyhee, Payette and Washington counties — including geothermal hot springs — and its staff is used to bumping into violations. Inspectors do an unannounced visit to each pool once a year. They also inspect any time someone calls with a concern, and they scrutinize seasonal pools an additional time before the beginning of each pool’s season.
Health violations can range from something as simple as a soap dispenser being empty to something as critical as water quality and lifeguard training, said Paula Ekins, Boise’s parks and recreation aquatic coordinator.
The more typical violations tend to be at the soap dispenser end of the spectrum, she said.
Ekins oversees the city of Boise’s six outdoor pools, and said they inspect their pools’ pH and chlorine levels every two hours the pools are open. They check coliform bacteria levels weekly.
Though Ekins said they do run into little violations with Central District Health inspections, their water quality and safety requirements have been in line.
“We have a really good track record in Boise,” she said.
79% of routine inspections in the CDC study turned up at least one code violation
2 The median number of violations per inspection; some inspections reached 21
12% of routine inspections found a violation that resulted in the immediate closure of the facility
The last water-borne illness outbreak involving a public pool in southern Idaho was in 2007 at Meridian’s Settlers Park splash park. It was a cryptosporidiosis outbreak originating in Salt Lake City, said Laurie Boston, spokeswoman for Southwest District Health. Cryptosporidium is a parasite that causes diarrhea. At least 50 people contracted it from that incident, according to a CDC report.
Since then, officials have increased safety measures at pools, Elkins said. In the Boise area, public pools started using ultraviolet disinfectant on top of chlorine.
Public pools are the only pools in Idaho that are required to undergo regular inspections. Under Idaho law, private pools that don’t require a fee to swim, like those in subdivisions, clubs or hotels, are not required to undergo inspections.
None of this is to say that Americans would be better off if they stayed away from public pools. On the contrary, swimming and other “water-based physical activity improves physical and mental health,” Michele C. Hlavsa of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases and her collaborators wrote in the new report, which appears in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. What’s more, they added, water-based exercise might be the only option for people with certain medical conditions.
Besides, swimming is a hugely popular pastime in this country. According to the Census Bureau, more than 50 million Americans over the age of 6 went swimming at least six times a year. So if public pools — at water parks, hotels, summer camps, apartment buildings, fitness clubs or municipal recreation facilities – aren’t safe, a lot of people could suffer the consequences.
So what’s a swimmer to do? The CDC’s advice is to visit a pool supply or hardware store and stock up on test strips that can measure the pH and disinfectants in the water. A healthy pool has a pH between 7.2 and 7.8. The concentration of chlorine should be at least 1 part per million in regular pool water and at least 3 ppm in a hot tub. For bromine, the concentration in pool water should be at least 3 ppm, and at least 4 ppm in a hot tub.
Health safety tips for pool fun
- Don’t swim when you have diarrhea.
- Don’t swallow the water you swim in and avoid getting it in your mouth.
- Shower with soap before swimming and wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers. Take a rinse shower before you get back into the water.
- Take bathroom breaks every hour and make sure your child does too. Check diapers every 30-60 minutes.
- Change diapers in a restroom or diaper-changing area and not at poolside where germs can rise into the water.
Provided by Southwest District Health