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Fountain Frolicking Can Be Fun, but Dangerous

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Both of the bacteria in this case are transmitted by swallowing stool-contaminated water, explains Garrett, so "we think if aggressive measures are taken to adequately chlorinate and filter water, that the number of outbreaks would decrease significantly."

One of the bacteria, C. parvum, is not killed by chlorine, but filtering the water can catch it. There also is a risk no matter what because the water takes 30 minutes to recirculate, so Garrett says no fix is "instantaneous." The CDC does have some recommendations to help prevent illness.

To avoid contaminating the water:

  • No adults or kids should ever enter any water attraction if they have diarrhea.
  • People should bathe before entering the water area to reduce risk of contamination.
  • If a child is in diapers, know that diapers do not prevent leakage of stool (even newly designed swim diapers).
  • Monitor a diaper-aged child for bowel movement, remove from water, change, and clean with soap and water.
  • Avoid sitting on or over water jets because this can increase risk of contaminating the water.

To stop transmission:

  • Simply don't drink the water.

Garrett says this last recommendation is a huge behavior modification to teach children, at best. "It's pretty tough when you have 4-year-olds who love to play with water in their mouths and mimic the interactive fountain, which is spurting water."

Public officials eventually closed the water fountain in this case and put in new control measures that are "excellent," according to Garrett. Chlorine monitor and filtration systems were installed, a sign was posted saying don't drink the water, and kids in diapers were excluded.

That's still better than what happened in the only other case like this, when an outbreak previously occurred at an ornamental fountain of the interactive type at the Minnesota Zoo. The fountain was subsequently fenced in to keep all people away.

At a large commercial water park in Atlanta, where people are obviously welcomed, there are no standing-water kiddie pools, stringent cleanliness procedures are in place, diapered children have to wear plastic swim covers, and caregivers are asked to "encourage" their children not to drink the water, according to the park's safety guidelines.

In public, though, the problem is largely unrecognized. A spokesperson for the National Safety Council tells WebMD they have plenty of suggested guidelines for pool safety, involving physical injury, but nothing about drinking the water, and "they don't have any bulletins on this at all."

Wally James, chairman of the safety committee for the World Waterpark Association, says: "There are no standards, and there's no line of responsibility for water quality control in those things. By and large, if it's a fountain, stay away from it, don't touch it. ... If the water is not being treated and filtered, don't go near it. It's that simple."

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