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The #1 health problem with pools isn't what you may think

Teresa Tanoos's picture
#1 problem in pools is poop

There’s another reason to remind kids not to drink the swimming pool water because the number one problem in pools is number two – as in THAT number two – poop!

While many worry more about pee in the pool, a new government report confirms that fecal matter is the top problem. And they have the evidence to prove that people are pooping in pools.

The report is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and reveals that more than 50% of public pool samples contain E. coli bacteria, which is a sign of fecal contamination.

“It’s not only disgusting, but it’s evidence that people are not following basic hygiene rules,” says Michele Hlavsa, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Swimming Program.

“It is time to stop treating the swimming pool as a toilet,” she told NBC News. “Nowhere else except for the pool is it acceptable to poop in public or pee in public. In other places if we did this in public, we’d be arrested.”

The detection of E. coli in over half of the pool samples indicates that swimmers frequently release poop in the pool, introducing fecal material that might transmit infectious pathogens to others. According to the report, the risk for transmission and recreational water illness increases if swimmers introduce feces when ill with diarrhea.

“A single diarrheal contamination incident can introduce 107–108 Cryptosporidium oocysts (2) into the water, a quantity sufficient to cause infection if a mouthful of water from a typical pool is ingested,” says the report from the CDC.

For the report, the CDC and county health officials sampled swimming pools in four Florida counties last summer and tested them for microbes, particularly E. coli, which lives inside animals and is carried in feces. Whenever E. coli is detected somewhere, chances are it came from feces.

“Escherichia coli, a fecal indicator, was detected in 93 (58 percent) samples; detection signifies that swimmers introduced fecal material into pool water,” For all researchers wrote in the report for the CDC’s weekly report on disease and death for May 17, 2013.

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“We don’t know how it got in there. It either washed off somebody’s body or somebody had a bowel movement in the pool,” Hlavsa said.

While the CDC reports that regular bowel movements aren’t of much concern, fecal matter from diarrhea is, the germs that caused diarrhea are dumped right into the water. And those germs do not get killed instantly by chorine.

Gross? You bet. But there is a silver lining, as Hlavsa says that there were no reports of sickness outbreaks at any of the pools tested last summer, or anywhere else in Florida last summer.

Nevertheless, there are between 20 and 80 disease outbreaks each year that are associated with public pools, Hlavsa says those are only the ones that get reported.

"Although this study focused on microbial DNA in filters (not on illnesses), these findings indicate the need for swimmers to help prevent introduction of pathogens (e.g., taking a pre-swim shower and not swimming when ill with diarrhea), aquatics staff to maintain disinfectant level and pH according to public health standards to inactivate pathogens, and state and local environmental health specialists to enforce such standards," the researchers wrote in the report.

Meanwhile, Hlavsa pointed out that the E. coli in the pool didn’t necessarily come from a bowel movement, but given that chances are likely it did, she urges people to actually obey the signs that virtually everyone ignores about showering before going into the pool.

“The average person has about .14 grams of feces on their rear end,” Hlavsa said. “If that rinses off into the water, the amount from one person might not be that much. But as more and more swimmers introduce it that much, it does become an issue.”

“Imagine 1,000 kids go to a water park,” she added. “They have as much as 10 grams of feces on their rear ends, (so) we are now talking about 10,000 grams or 10 kg. That translates to 24 pounds of poop in the water.”

In light of the foregoing, Hlavsa emphasized one important rule: Never swallow the water from a swimming pool.

“Basically, these pools are big bathtubs we all share together,” she said.

SOURCE: Centers for Disease and Control (CDC), Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) - May 17, 2013 / 62(19);385-388