Swim, Don't Swallow: Water-Borne Illnesses at New Highs
Beware: Chlorine doesn't kill all in swimming pools.
When you swim, some water is going to get into your mouth. For
the most part, that is OK. In recreational pools chlorine is used to kill germs
although it can take its sweet time killing some of them.
However, in 1999-2000, more than 2,000 recreational water
illnesses (RWIs) and four deaths occurred because of water system failures in
recreational pools. The most common RWI by far is diarrhea which affects
thousands who accidentally swallow infected pool water.
Sitting in high school biology, listening to the teacher drone on about
genetics, I snapped to attention when she used male pattern baldness as an
example of a dominant trait. My heart started pounding with fear - with bald
men on both sides of my mother's family as far as the eye could see, I was
doomed to have a chrome dome.
I remained anguished about the prospect of being bald for the next 20 years
as my hairline retreated and my hair steadily thinned. Bald men seemed
disfigured to me....
This was 10 times the rate of the decade before, Michael Beach,
epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta,
tells WebMD. Most swimming pool outbreaks go unrecognized and unreported. In
the last decade, he estimates, pool outbreaks have affected 10,000 people.
On average people have about 0.14 grams of feces on their
bottoms which, when rinsed off, can contaminate recreational water. People who
have diarrhea have millions of germs. If a swimmer has diarrhea, he or she can
contaminate water if he or she has an "accident" in the pool.
A particularly nasty customer that can be swimming alongside
you is cryptosporidium, a parasite that laughs at chlorine and can cause
diarrheal distress. The approximate disinfectant time in chlorinated water for
this germ is nearly seven days. In the very young (say, that newborn you are
"flying" through the water) or those with immune problems, crypto can
cause severe debilitating illnesses. Some water parks have -- charmingly --
been described as "diarrhea farms."
"Crypto," says Beach, "can live in a chlorinated
pool for days. Chlorine kills other organisms in a fraction of a second. This
is a totally different beast."
Other unwelcome swim partners include E.coli, Giardia,
and Shigella. "We see 2 million cases a year of Giardia,"
Beach says, speaking of other frequent fecal contaminants.
Americans, with their light-hearted "I don't swim in your
toilet" signs, are pretty realistic -- if a little misguided -- about
"group bathing." In May of 2004, Opinion Research Corporation (ORC)
conducted a survey of nearly 1,000 people over the age of 18. Among the
About 60% said that it is "not likely at all" or "possible but
not likely" that a person could get sick from pool water.
Still, 88% agreed you should use soap and water after using the bathroom if
you plan to jump back in the pool. Nearly 75% said they shower before going
Nearly 94% said a "poop" accident should be reported
75% pointed the finger at diapered children (although Beach says adults who
don't "wipe" thoroughly add 3 to 4 pounds of "solid" matter to
the average water park).
One-fifth said if you could smell the chlorine, the pool was safe (chlorine
does kill germs, but some organisms die a slow death, lasting in a dangerous
state for days). Also, a heavy odor means harmful chemicals have formed.
One-fifth said a little urine never hurt anyone (urine, in fact, does not
contain germs, but you can decide how you feel about that statement).