Here are some ways you can protect your kids and other swimmers from recreational water-associated illnesses.
Gina Kaysen Fernandes: I figured I had little to worry about as my toddler and I took the plunge into our first "mommy and me" swim lesson at our local pool. My 18-month-old took to the water like a fish ... more fearless than fearful of the water. As about a dozen parents and tots eased into the shallow end, one father shocked me. He brought his 2-year-old son into the water wearing only his Underoos -- no swim diaper, no swimsuit.
"Sir, your child needs to be wearing a swimsuit," said the instructor. "It's not hygienic." The dad looked bewildered by the comment and explained to the lifeguard that his son was potty trained, didn't have a swimsuit, and that he'd already paid for the class. To my surprise, the lifeguard let it slide! The dad put his son's shorts on over his tighty-whities and continued with the class.
I wondered if the pool staff had risked public safety by allowing a baby in the water without proper protection. "Ideally, the pool supervisor should have said that's not acceptable," says Michele Hlavsa, an epidemiologist with the healthy swimming program at the Centers for Disease Control. Hlavsa has a few concerns about swimming in street clothes. First, there's a danger that loose clothing can get caught on things and the cloth fibers can clog up the filter. Then there's the hygiene issue. "You're in the clothes all day and they can contain bodily fluids like sweat, urine, or stool," says Hlavsa.
Poop in the pool is not trivial. The most dangerous organisms that cause waterborne illnesses come from human feces. Even a seemingly small "accident" can release millions of germs and contaminate an entire pool. The most common recreational water-associated illness (RWI) is diarrhea. It's caused by a particularly pesky parasite called Cryptosporidium, or Crypto for short. The bug can survive in chlorinated pools for up to ten days. Because of its resistance to chlorine, Crypto has become enemy number one in community pools. The CDC has seen a steady jump in RWI outbreaks in recent years. Between 2005-2006, the CDC reported 78 RWI outbreaks affecting nearly 4,500 people. That's the largest number of outbreaks ever reported in a two-year period.
In addition to Crypto, pools can host other nasty germs like Giardia, Shigella, norovirus, and E. coli O157:H7. You can get sick by swallowing, breathing, or simply coming into contact with contaminated water. The typical symptoms of RWIs are similar to food poisoning, but RWIs can also cause skin, ear, and respiratory infections. Most illnesses will heal on their own, but young children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems can get very sick and require hospitalization.
To put it in perspective, the dangers associated with swimming are like that of any other activity -- there are some risks. Of the estimated hundreds of millions of swimming visits in the United States each year, most people don't get sick. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be vigilant.
The CDC is empowering parents to keep their community pools in check. "A lot of local health departments are shutting down their inspection units because of budget cuts," says Hlavsa. She urges parents to bring their own test strips to check the water themselves. "If the pH balance is 8 or higher, the chlorine doesn't work effectively," Hlavsa said.
Other tips include making sure you can see the bottom of the pool. The water should look clear, not cloudy. The pool tiles should not be slippery or sticky. And if there's a strong chemical odor, that's a sign of a dirty pool.
It's also the parents' responsibility to keep their kids safe and clean. Swim diapers may provide a false sense of security. There's little scientific evidence on how well the diapers keep in infection-causing germs.
Here are some ways you can protect your kids and other swimmers:
• Don't let your child swim if they have diarrhea.
• Don't let them swallow pool water.
• Shower before entering the pool, and never use the pool as a toilet.
• Practice good hygiene.
• Take your kids on bathroom breaks often.
• Change diapers in a bathroom and not at the poolside.
• Wash your child's rear end thoroughly with soap and water before swimming.
To my relief, our son escaped his first swim lesson unscathed. I hope his classmate's father shows up more prepared next time.