This just in: water is wet, and public pools are awash with fecal bacteria. This year’s pool safety report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is full of similarly unsurprising, if dismaying, information. A summary of the findings was published May 19 in the CDC’s fun-filled Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
From a preventive health perspective, community pools have a lot to offer: recreation, fun, opportunities to socialize, and physical activity. Unfortunately, these perks don’t come without costs. Drowning, injury, and outbreaks of disease are all real risks for pool users.
To quantify these dangers and see if public facilities were following health and safety codes, CDC staff compiled the results of 84,187 routine inspections from 2013. The analysts only took data from the five states with the most public pools and hot tubs: Arizona, California, Florida, New York, and Texas.
The results were grim. One out of every eight routine inspections resulted in the closure of a facility. One in five kiddie/wading pools had to be shut down. And almost 80 percent of inspections found at least one violation of health or safety standards. The top three violations were imbalanced pool chemistry, lack of safety equipment, and too much or too little disinfectant in the water.
“No one should get sick or hurt when visiting a public pool, hot tub, or water playground,” Beth Bell, director of CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, said in a press statement. “That’s why public health and aquatics professionals work together to improve the operation and maintenance of these public places so people will be healthy and safe when they swim.”
Unfortunately, many public health professionals are ignoring pools altogether. Only two-thirds of local health departments in the U.S. bother to regulate and inspect public pools, hot tubs, and water playgrounds. Those of us living in other jurisdictions are on our own.
Before you burn your bathing suit, it’s worth noting that the report did have some limitations. These are inspection results from only five states, not the entire country. Second, these figures are averages, and some areas were more problematic than others. Third, there are no federal inspection standards, so each official may be going by a different set of rules.
Still, there’s no harm in taking measures to keep yourself and your family safe. If you’re really concerned about swallowing poop bacteria (and we don’t blame you), you can bring your own test strips to check the pool’s chemistry. The CDC recommends looking for a free chlorine concentration of at least 1 ppm in pools and 3 ppm in hot tubs; a free bromine concentration of at least 3 ppm in pools and at least 4 ppm in hot tubs; and a pH of 7.2–7.8.