Supplement Feature - February 2010
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Serve & Protect

Aquatic Safety & Staffing

By Richard Zowie

Chlorine can kill RWI germs, but it requires time. In a properly-disinfected pool, chlorine can kill most of these germs in less than an hour. But some germs like Cryptosporidium (or Crypto) can survive for longer—sometimes even days—even in a pool that's been maintained properly.

Who's at risk for contracting an RWI? According to the CDC, among those most vulnerable are children, pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems (such as those living with AIDS) along with recent organ transplant recipients or those who've received chemotherapy. Furthermore, the center reports that for people with weakened immune systems, pools contaminated with human or animal waste that contains Crypto can potentially be life-threatening. Those with compromised immune systems should consult their doctor before swimming.

Most RWIs are self-limiting, said Dr. Thomas Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation.

"This means that a person with a healthy immune system will fight off the disease," he said. "Rashes caused by bacteria in pools are often fought off by the body and the ill person does not receive medical attention."

Lachocki does feel that a person with Crypto should stay away from the water for two weeks after diarrhea symptoms pass since the person will remain contagious. He pointed out that whether or not a person with Crypto has a fecal accident in the pool, they can still inadvertently spread germs that can cause others to develop diarrhea.

"Recent studies evaluating swim diapers demonstrate they are not effective at containing Crypto," he added. "As a result, it is very important that people who have diarrhea stay out of the water. When an outbreak is spread in a region, it makes little difference if the ill bather swims in an indoor or an outdoor pool. The disease will spread."

When it comes to combating RWIs, Aquatic Safety Research Group founder Dr. Tom Griffiths said that while chlorine has been the number-one defense, ultraviolet light also appears to have much potential to help.

"[Ultraviolet light] is a very effective way of kicking it up a notch as far as disinfection is concerned," said Griffiths, who served as director of aquatics and safety officer for athletics at Penn State University for almost 25 years. "It looks like UV light is becoming more in use throughout the U.S. It also helps to keep down the chloramines and makes chlorine more effective."

What's the most effective way to help prevent RWIs? Griffiths has a direct approach that might not win many popularity contests.

"The most effective way is to keep sick people out of the water, but I don't think that's ever going to happen," he said. "The bottom line is to not allow your levels to get low. Keep high levels of chlorine in water. Backwash filters regularly. Use UV to supplement chlorine."

Lachocki added that all public pools should have trained and certified operators on staff or servicing the pool. Those operators should make sure that proper disinfection levels and pH levels are maintained at all times.

Even if aquatic facilities can't keep those under the weather from swimming, Griffiths suggests a common-sense approach that he feels could help a great deal: swimmers taking showers before getting into the pool.

"The whole swimming pool culture has to be changed if we're serious about reducing RWIs," he said. "People don't take a complete soapy shower before going into the water. If every person showered before going into the water, it would be cleaner and healthier…I think this would save an awful lot of work, effort, money and problems."

While RWIs present a problem that needs to be dealt with, Griffiths hopes that priorities will shift to what he feels are the major problems affecting aquatic facilities.

"Relatively speaking, RWIs, as far as causing fatalities, are not as big a problem as drowning or children not knowing how to swim," he said. "It's great we're cleaning up water quality, but I wish we spent more time and effort in drowning prevention. Compared to drowning, I don't think it's that big of a problem. We're not losing as many lives to RWIs as we do people not learning to swim or kids swimming unsupervised."