June 5, 2000 -- After one child died and 25 people were sickened by a 1998 outbreak of an E. coli strain caused by feces-contaminated water at a park near Atlanta, public health officials and public pool operators were justifiably concerned. The conditions pointed up a growing hazard -- and health officials have since acknowledged that even pool operators with the best intentions, pool maintenance, and response plans can't completely prevent the spread of infectious diseases through water contaminated by germ-carrying feces.
"There's still a lot of education that needs to go on with the public," says Doug Brenner, director of an award-winning aquatics program in Portland, Ore. Swimmers -- especially those with small children -- must practice good hygiene to prevent feces from getting in the pool.
Do we really have to talk about this stuff?
Yes, say health and safety experts. While perhaps not yet socially acceptable, talking openly about "poop in the pool" is important to the public's health. The chance of catching an infectious disease in a well-maintained swimming pool is low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But not all pools are properly maintained, and the CDC warns that chlorine can't kill all germs. And crowded lakes can be especially vulnerable to outbreaks of fecal-borne illness.
To protect yourself and your children, choose a swimming pool that has a reputation for being well maintained. The water should be clear, not cloudy. Recently, public pools have faced stricter water quality rules. Plus, to reduce risks, some have improved cleanliness by constantly flushing water through the pool as well as by filtration and disinfection. Ask about the pool's maintenance schedule and whether the pool has a "fecal accident response plan."
Understand that the response will vary by situation. A solid stool found in the shallow end may require only a quick scoop-up. In other cases, especially with diarrhea, a more extensive cleanup is necessary, requiring swimmers to leave the pool and more chemicals to be pumped in.
Tell your kids never to drink the water. Emphasize the importance of keeping their mouths closed even while splashing around.
- Be aware that swim diapers won't prevent leaks or contamination. Encourage your children to visit the potty before taking a dip.
- Before swimming, wash your young child (especially his or her bottom), thoroughly with soap and water.
- Take your child to the bathroom often during a day of swimming. Wash your hands and your child's thoroughly with soap after a potty break.
- Keep kids out of the pool altogether if they have any sign of diarrhea.
- Change diapers in the bathroom, not at poolside.
- If you see feces in the pool, tell a lifeguard.
Betsy Rubiner, based in Des Moines, Iowa, specializes in writing about children and families. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Boston Globe, among other publications.