If there’s one topic we weren’t expecting to write about this week, it was fecal parasites — but some matters are just too important to ignore, and a disease lurking in the waters of summer’s most popular hangout spot — the swimming pool — is one of them. We’d had a different topic planned for this week, but this past Friday the Centers for Disease Control dropped a bombshell health warning that has been making heads (and stomachs) turn: cryptosporidiosis outbreaks are on the rise, and bad pool hygiene is to blame.
We get it, most people would prefer not knowing what’s really floating around in that public pool water, but when it’s something that can cause watery diarrhea and stomach cramps that can last up to 3 weeks, it’s hard not to pay attention. Caused by a microscopic parasite called cryptosporidium, the disease (also known as Crypto for short) also presents with a host of other unwelcome symptoms. These include dehydration, nausea, vomiting, fever, and weight loss, which typically begin within 2-10 days (an average of 7) of transmission. But it’s the most common symptom, watery diarrhea, that provides a difficult-miss-clue as to how it’s spread: fecal-oral contact, or swallowing crypto-contaminated pool water. Yuck!
While the fact that pools are often treated like toilet bowls should come as a surprise to no one, what will be is that cryptosporidium is highly resistant to disinfectants, including chlorine bleach. What does this mean? It means that the parasite can survive for long periods of time in a chlorinated or other type of treated pool, and still remain infective. In fact, it’s one of the most common waterborne illnesses in the world.
Between 2009 and 2017, researchers found more than 444 outbreaks and 7,465 cases of cryptosporidiosis in America. The majority of cases (35%) could be traced back to people swimming in contaminated pools or water playgrounds, while another 15% and 13% of cases were linked respectively to human interaction with cattle and exposure to other sickened children at daycare.
The running advice line for dealing with cattle is pretty obvious: wash your hands after touching animals (so no putting your fingers in your mouth after petting that goat, Timmy), but one would think the corresponding solution to pools and daycare would be equally apparent: if you have diarrhea, please stay home.
Sadly, the latter seems to be something of an unheard of suggestion. According to a recent survey from the Water Quality & Health Council, “more than half of Americans (51%) report using a swimming pool as a communal bathtub, either swimming as a substitute for showering or using the pool to rinse off after exercise or yardwork.”
Don’t worry, it gets worse! This survey also revealed that 24% of Americans reported that they would swim in a pool within an hour of them having diarrhea. Meaning, not even 60 minutes after they experienced the kind of terrible-horrible intestinal nightmare each and every one of us (probably) dreads most, they would cannonball into their nearest public pool.
Uh, thanks? You know sometimes sharing really isn’t caring. Like, we know our beloved fish-friend Dory says “just keep swimming,” but diarrhea is one of those times when that mantra should NOT apply. Like, for realsies.
We can’t actually believe we’re about to write this sentence, just to be extra, super, unmistakably, categorically clear: do not, under any circumstances, go swimming if you have diarrhea or have recently had diarrhea. And if you’ve been diagnosed with cryptosporidiosis, extend that “just please don’t do it” period to two weeks. Even if you think you’re better, it only takes one person to infect an entire pool.
Here are a few other tips:
- DO NOT pee in the pool. Here’s a scary statistic: 40% of Americans admit to having peed in a pool… as an adult. While yes, urine is sterile when it comes out of your body, it will not stay sterile long once it hits that pool water. Moreover, urine interacts with all those disinfectants used to treat the pool water with, essentially diluting them to make them less effective against the things that really matter: like cryptosporidium.
- DO take a shower before jumping in that pool. Makeup and deoderant can actually change a pool’s chemistry. A lot of work goes into making sure the right mix of chemicals have been used in the pool to keep it sanitary for everyone. Showering will get personal products (and even sweat and dirt) off.
- DO NOT swallow pool water. Just don’t. Definitely not on purpose, and preferably not by accident either. You’re essentially swimming in a one big shared bathtub. If you wouldn’t drink your own bathwater, or even your neighbor’s bathwater, do you really want that swimmer’s afternoon run-off in your mouth, too? Probably not (we hope).
- DO check your child’s diaper hourly. Swim diapers aren’t foolproof, and it’s very much possible for a bit of baby bowel movement to leak out here and there. Obviously, this isn’t great. Checking hourly makes sure you can catch a dirty diaper quickly, and while you’re at it, take the brief pool break to herd all the other little one’s into the bathroom. If 40% of adults are peeing in pools, that kiddo percentage is easily closer to 100.
- DO NOT swim in contaminated water. This doesn’t just include pools, but also includes rivers and lakes. Standing bodies of water, such as that backyard pond that only pops up in the summer, are probably even worse.
- DO test your public pool. At-home pool tests do exist, and yet only 1 in 5 Americans have revealed that they’ve taken the initiative to test a public pool yourself. If doing so seems like a step too far for you (it isn’t), you can also check your local pool’s health grade.
Swimming is great exercise, and great fun for the whole family… but that fun can take an abruptly uncomfortable turn when all of a sudden you’re sprinting full-tilt to the nearest porta-john.
Taking the necessary precautions to keep your family safe, as well as all of your neighbors using that pool too, is just the right thing to do. We’ve all heard of E. coli and salmonella, and all the gastrointestinal delights they bring. It’s why we don’t eat raw meat, and why we wash our lettuce. You don’t want anything in your mouth that might make you sick? This same priority extends to pool water. No matter how clean you or your neighbor might be, it’s impossible to keep your local swimming hole completely free of feces. Whether we like it or not, microscopic flecks of bacterial and parasitic matter will get in the water. But that’s no reason for resignation! We should all do our part to keep our pools clean, so that the treatments we use in them can best do their jobs.
And once you’re finally healthy again, well, that’s when you can get back to Dory’s beloved mantra: just keep swimming.
Looking for More Summer Reading?
This was the sixth post in our inaugural Summer Safety Series! In case you missed them, and would like to take a break from you favorite beach read, you can check out the other posts in the series here:
#1. Hot Tips for Your Family, Part 1 [pools, trampolines, and food poisoning]
#2. Help! I’ve Created A Lobster! [sun safety]
#3. Heatstroke Isn’t Cool [heat safety]
#4. ‘Cause Baby You’re a Firework… Victim [firework safety]
#5. As Temperatures Rise, So Do Hot Car Incidents [hot car safety]
Coming up next, we’ll be visiting a variety of topics relevant to your family and loved ones with Hot Tips (Part 2), featuring the bugs that bother and playground injuries. If you have a topic you’d like us to cover in this series, let us know in the comments or on Facebook.
Stay safe out there, and Happy Summer!
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Check Out These References for Further Reading:
“Cryptosporidium: General Information for the Public.” Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved 19 July 2019.
“Cryptosporidiosis Outbreaks — United States, 2009–2017.” Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved 19 July 2019.
“CDC warns of fecal pool parasite — how you can stay safe.” Yahoo Lifestyle. Retrieved 19 July 2019.
“Half of Americans Use Swimming Pools as Communal Bathtub, Survey Finds.” Water Quality & Health Council. Retrieved 19 July 2019.
“CDC issues warning on ‘crypto’ fecal parasite that can live for days in swimming pools.” CNN. Retrieved 19 July 2019.