Feature Article - January 2005
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Potentially Dangerous When Wet

Aquatic risk management red flags

By Stacy St. Clair


No one goes to the pool to get sick.

But that's exactly what's happening at aquatic facilities all over the country.

Experts link about 10 diarrheal outbreaks to swimming pools each year. While the number may seem small to pool operators, it's probably grossly underestimated because most diarrheal illnesses do not get reported to health-care providers and health officials.

One outbreak, however, can be devastating from both a financial and public-relations standpoint. Just ask the residents of Lawrence, Kan., where last year more than 600 people fell ill from the pool-related parasite cryptosporidium.

"It's a major problem for aquatic facilities," says NSPF's Lachocki. "They're fighting open and invisible pathogens."

Aquatic centers have begun combating the problem by educating the public. They're enforcing strict rules, insisting that patrons shower thoroughly before entering the water and prohibiting parents from changing diapers poolside.

Pool operators have begun hanging posters and distributing pamphlets explaining why bathers should not swallow the water or swim when they have diarrhea. Some facilities also are instituting mandatory break times and encouraging parents to use that time to take their children to the bathroom.

"From a prevention standpoint, it's one of the best things you can do," Lachocki says. "For example, you have to explain to parents why they can't change diapers near the pool or on lounge chair."


Cryptosporidium, a germ that causes diarrhea, continually threatens to hold pools and waterparks hostage. In order to combat the problem, pool operators and facility managers need their patrons' cooperation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers printable brochures and posters online at www.healthyswimming.org. Recreation managers are encouraged to print them out and hang or distribute them throughout their facilities.

Here are six CDC-recommended "PLEAs" that facility managers can offer patrons to promote more sanitary pools. Post them throughout your aquatic center or waterpark to minimize the risk of recreational water illnesses.

1. Please don't swim when you have diarrhea.

2. Please don't swallow the pool water.

3. Please practice good hygiene. Take a shower before swimming, and wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.

4. Please take your child on bathroom breaks frequently and perform regular diaper checks.

5. Please change diapers in the bathroom and not at poolside or on deck chairs.

6. Please wash your child thoroughly—especially in the rear end—with soap and water before entering the pool.

The proper design also can help deter recreational water illnesses. The NSPF recommends using separate filtering systems for different areas of the pool. That way, only one section of pool has to be closed in the event of a diarrheal accident.

Experts also recommend bathrooms be located close to the pool, making it easier for patrons to use the facilities. CDC studies show parents want clean, well-stocked bathrooms within a quick walk from the pool.

The bathroom also should have adequate changing stations so moms and dads have a hygienic alternative to changing diapers near the water.

"A lot of these issues can be addressed in the design," Lachocki says.

The most important thing pools can do, however, is make sure their operators are well-trained. Having a pool operator who doesn't understand the job or the chemistry behind it is like hiring a lifeguard that doesn't know how to perform CPR or makes rescues.

A recent NSPF study of six jurisdictions showed nearly one in every five operators had no formal training. Even worse, all six of the jurisdictions required it by law.

Experts estimate nearly half of the pool operators are untrained in states that do not require it.

"It's hard to believe," Lachocki says. "It's extremely important for operators to understand the chemistry behind it."

The precautions will help prevent an outbreak of recreational water illnesses, thus keeping pools from having to close for health reasons. An unscheduled closing means lost revenue and extra expenses.

But should a serious incident arise, Lachocki says operators should not be afraid to close the infected waters.

"As little as people want to pull the cord," Lachocki says. "They don't want make their clients sick."