Water, Water, Everywhere, But Is It Safe to Swim?
It is a favorite summertime activity for all ages. In fact, swimming or relaxing in recreational water, such as swimming pools, water parks, hot tubs, lakes, rivers, or the ocean is one of the most popular activities in the country. However, swimmers can become affected by recreational water illnesses.
What Causes Recreational Water Illnesses?
In swimming pools, germs, such as Cryptosporidium, hot tub rash, Legionella, swimmer's ear, Giardia, and indoor air irritants, are the most common causes of recreational water illnesses. These germs enter the water primarily through fecal contamination. Exposure to these contaminants usually manifests as diarrhea. However, contaminated water may also cause skin rashes, ear infections, or respiratory infections.
And while it is true that chlorine does kill these germs, insufficient maintenance of chlorine levels and filtering systems may impact the effectiveness of chlorination. In addition, chlorine takes time to work, even in the most stringently maintained swimming facilities. Cryptosporidium, which is highly resistant to chlorine, may continue to live for several days after a pool has been disinfected.
In lakes, rivers, and oceans, pollution by raw sewage is the largest culprit for water contamination with disease-causing organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and worms. And of course, open water is not chlorinated. This means that your best defense is a good offense, and you should check with your local pollution control authorities regarding water quality at your favorite beach before you go. You can also check the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) beach watch website at http://www.epa.gov/OST/beaches.
Swimming Pools, Water Parks, and Hot Tubs
In addition to fecal contamination, swimming pools, hot tubs, and water parks may also be contaminated by vomit or blood in the water. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes guidelines for the maintenance and care of these facilities and recommends procedures to deal with any of the above mentioned types of contamination.
If your favorite spot to relax happens to be a swimming pool, water park, or hot tub, check with the pool’s management and staff to make sure they are aware of these recommendations and have a clear plan for responding to any type of water contamination.
A Day at the Beach
If your favorite water spot is a public beach, here are some questions the EPA suggests you ask your local beach-monitoring official so you can stay safe:
If your favorite beach is not monitored regularly, here are some things you can do to protect yourself and your family:
The Six Steps for Healthy Swimming
The CDC has published steps for healthy swimming to help you protect yourself against recreational water illnesses. Following these six recommendations will go a long way in ensuring everyone has fun in the water this summer!
United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
United States Environmental Protection Agency
Public Health Agency of Canada
Before you go to the beach. United States Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPURL.cgi?Dockey=20009NUD.txt . Accessed June 18, 2012.
Healthy swimming/recreational water. United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming. Updated June 7, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012.
Six steps of healthy swimming. United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming/6_steps.htm. Updated April 6, 2010. Accessed June 18, 2012.
Last reviewed June 2012 by Brian Randall, MD