Swimming Pool Safety – Recreational Water Illnesses (R.W.I.)

Swimming pool season is just around the corner.  Many people will soon or have already begun to prepare by trying to lose those holiday pounds.  Although physical fitness is important for a healthy lifestyle, there are other things related to swimming pools that need to be addressed in order to maintain a healthy life.  In a previous post, I gave some information regarding how owning a swimming pool can be beneficial to your health.  Today, I will address the very real threat of Recreational Water Illnesses (R.W.I.).

I think that many pool owners neglect the fact that these threats exist.  For some, it’s probably just a lack of knowledge.  I think it’s time we stop basking in our own ignorance regarding health and safety.  While the lack of knowledge may not be ignorant in itself, the lack of having the will to learn is.  In the world today, we are exposed to many things that were not present in the past.  The best way to fight back, in my opinion, is to take preventative measures.  Get vaccinations, eat healthy, exercise, and take precautions regarding outdoor activities.  In the last two decades there has been a substantial increase in the amount of R.W.I outbreaks.  Before I get too far along, I want to give some background information.

What are R.W.I’s?

Basically, these are illnesses caused by germs and chemicals that are found in the water we swim in.  Some might say that the water they swim in is perfectly safe, because they treat it properly and keep it well maintained.  The number one chemical used to keep swimming pools clean is chlorine.  However, there are some germs present today that are very chlorine tolerant.  In fact, it may take anywhere from a couple minutes to a couple days to kill them.  This is more true if the chlorine levels in a pool are off.  Basically, if there is not enough chlorine to go around then some of these germs may remain.  Obviously germs are small, and it would only take a small amount to make you sick.

How are R.W.I’s spread?
R.W.I.’s are spread by swallowing contaminated water, breathing in the mist from a fountain or other water fixture, or by simply coming into contact with water that is contaminated by these germs.  They are not just found in private swimming pools either.  They can be present in public pools, water parks, water play areas (splash parks),  fountains, rivers, lakes, streams, and even the ocean.  In addition to all that, they can also be caused by chemicals in the water or from chemical evaporation if your pool is indoors.

What kind of problems do they cause?
They can produce a variety of infections, including gastrointestinal, skin, eye, ear, respiratory, neurological, and wound infections.  However diarrhea is the most commonly reported problem.  Cryptosporidium  has become the number one cause of pool related diarrheal illness.  “Crypto” has the ability to stay alive for days on end, even in a well maintained pool.  That is not to say that keeping a well maintained pool is futile.  Although “Crypto” is chlorine tolerant, most germs are not.  So keeping a well maintained pool is the first step toward fighting R.W.I.’s.

How does Cryptosoridium get into the pool?

That is a very good question, unfortunately the answer is not what you want to hear.  Cryptosoridium and other germs enter your pool through feces.  I’m not saying that someone has gone number 2 in the pool, however on average people have about .14 grams of feces on their under carriage. When they get into the pool some of that is rinsed off and enters the pool.  If someone in the pool is already ill with diarrhea their feces can contain millions of germs.  That means that it could only take one person to effectively contaminate and entire pool.  If you have a pool, or even if you just like to swim, then you have probably experienced the almost inevitable instance when you accidentally swallow a mouthful of water.  Even a small amount of contaminated water can make you sick.

What about other R.W.I. germs, how do they get into the water?
A lot of the other R.W.I.’s, such as skin, eye, ear, respiratory, and wound infections, are caused by germs that naturally live in environments, like dirt and water.  If proper disinfectant levels are not maintained in the pool, then these germs can multiply and have the potential to cause illness.  This is why it is important to keep your pool well maintained with the proper amount of chlorine.

How can we prevent R.W.I.’s?

In addition to properly maintaining the swimming pool (keeping chlorine levels where they need to be), there are a few steps you can take towards the fight against R.W.I.’s.  First, try to keep poop and pee out of the pool.  You can do this by washing with soap and water before getting into the pool.  After you are in the pool, it is a good idea to take bathroom breaks every 60 minutes or so.  Obviously, you will want to wash your hands afterward as well.  Also, although accidents happen, do your best to not swallow the water that you are swimming in.  If you are a parent of young children, then you will want to make sure that you are taking them to the restroom every 60 minutes as well.  I know that some parents and grandparents for that matter love to see the cuteness of a toddler swimming in diaper.  I am guilty of this as well.  No worries, if this is the case just be sure to change their diapers frequently and do so in the bathroom or somewhere away from the pool to prevent any waste from entering the pool.

Please visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more information regarding healthy swimming habits, and as always… Be safe.