Summer Safety: Protecting Your Family from Environmental Health Risks

4 min read

As you prepare to let your kids explore the great outdoors this summer, you may have some nagging worries. What chemicals and environmental toxins might lurk in the local pool, lake, or beach? How can you protect your family from them?

The good news is that there are ways you can reduce their exposure to risky chemicals and environmental toxins. Here are outdoor safety tips on how to keep your kids healthy in the water.

When many of us were growing up, the summer didn’t really start until the local swimming pool opened. Although you may like the idea of your own kids swimming the day away, you may also have concerns. That crystal blue water may not be as clean as it seems. Water quality can be affected by biological toxins (such as bacteria) or chemical toxicants (such as chlorine). In one corner, you have recreational water illnesses. These include Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and E. coli. Many of these germs are spread by feces, and one person can contaminate an entire pool. Every summer, these infections make thousands of people sick.

In the other corner, you have chlorine. Although it can kill most of those water-borne germs, it’s also a chemical toxicant that poses risks of its own. Chlorine can bind with sweat or urine in pools to form chloramines, which can cause stinging eyes, nasal irritation, and breathing problems. Some studies have found that heavy exposure to chlorinated pools can increase the risk of asthma in children. Although the greatest danger is from poorly ventilated indoor pools, even outdoor pools can cause problems.

So what can you do? How can you balance the risk of waterborne illness with the risks of chemicals like chlorine? Here are some tips.

If you’re using a local pool, you should

  • Ask the management how the pool is sanitized and ventilated.
  • Talk to a pediatrician about the safety of chlorine exposure for your child.
  • Only swim in a pool if the water looks clear and not cloudy -- you should be able to see right to the bottom. Although a clear pool could still harbor germs, cloudy water is an indication of a pool that's not being properly maintained.
  • Touch the sides of the pool before going in -- they should not be slimy or sticky.
  • Listen to make sure that the filtering equipment is on.
  • Be wary of a very strong chlorine smell -- it’s a sign of chloramines and poor ventilation.
  • Tell your kids not to swallow the water in swimming pools -- it’s really best if they don’t get it in their mouths at all.
  • Protect others by telling your kids to shower before getting in a pool, and by never letting them go in a pool when they’re sick – especially with a stomach bug.
  • Avoid swimming in a highly chlorinated pool every day.

If you have your own pool at home, you should

  • Make sure indoor pools have good ventilation -- just opening the windows and doors can make a big difference in air quality.
  • Keep your pool free of leaves and insects.
  • If you use chlorine, make sure not to use more than necessary.

If you’re interested, look into alternatives to chlorine for your own pool, or at least ways to reduce the amount you use. Alternative pool-cleaning methods include ultraviolet light, hydrogen peroxide, and potassium iodine.

What’s the downside? Many of these methods have not been independently tested, so no one knows how well they work. Certainly, don’t just assume that anything called a “natural” alternative to chlorine is preferable.

One way to avoid the conundrum of the unsanitary versus over-chlorinated swimming pool is to swim in natural bodies of water. But there can still be risks of environmental toxins or chemical toxicants. How do you know if the water in the ocean, or lake, or pond, or swimming hole that your kids are splashing around in is actually safe?

It’s not easy to figure out on your own, but Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., suggests starting with a phone call. “Call the local department of health,” she says. “They should be keeping an eye on local water quality issues and should give you some guidance.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has some general tips for safe swimming.

  • Don’t swim after a heavy rain – rains can cause waste water to seep into lakes and oceans
  • This should be obvious, but if you see trash in the water, or if it smells bad, don’t go in
  • Stay away from potential sources of pollution, like pipes or runoff ditches
  • Don’t swallow the water -- and with very small children, try to keep their heads above water.