Every year, germs in pools, lakes, rivers, and water parks sicken thousands of Americans, most frequently with diarrheal illnesses (caused by germs such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, norovirus and E. coli, according to the CDC). Collectively, the illnesses they contract are known as recreational water illnesses, or RWIs.
While you should not let RWIs scare you away from your favorite water activities this summer, we want to provide you with a few key points of safety information:
- What are RWIs?
- How are RWIs spread?
- What can you do to protect yourself and your family from RWIs?
What are RWIs?
According to the CDC, "RWIs can be a wide variety of infections, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections." Of these, gastrointestinal (i.e. diarrheal) are the most common, but for an exhaustive list of possible RWIs, see the CDC’s page here.
What causes RWIs, or how are RWIs spread?
As mentioned above, RWIs are spread by "germs spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water" in any source of recreational water (CDC). In the case of an RWI such as Swimmer’s Ear (otitis externa), the contaminant is most often the germ Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is commonly found in water and soil.
But in the case of a diarrheal RWI such as Crypto, your fellow swimmers are the culprits. Any germs that are on their bodies when they enter the water stand to be rinsed off and dispersed into the water that surrounds you. The CDC drives this discomforting point home: "On average, people have about 0.14 grams of feces on their bottoms which, when rinsed off, can contaminate recreational water…Swallowing even a small amount of recreational water that has been contaminated with feces containing germs can make you sick."
What can you do to protect yourself and your family from RWIs?
Many people’s first reaction is to ask, "Shouldn’t the chlorine in the pool protect me by killing any germs in it?" The short answer is yes, that chlorine should, and eventually does, kill the germs that spread RWIs. The catch is that chlorine takes different amounts of time to kill different germs. The following table is taken from a CDC report on fecal contamination of pools:
Germ Inactivation Time for Chlorinated Water
|E. coli O157:H7 Bacterium
||Less than 1 minute
|Hepatitis A Virus
||About 16 minutes
||About 45 minutes
||About 15,300 minutes or 10.6 days
As you can see in the table above, even in a properly chlorinated pool, Crypto can survive for fully 10 days! So it should come as no surprise that, according to a CDC report, Crypto "has become the leading cause of gastroenteritis outbreaks associated with swimming pool venues. Reporting of cryptosporidiosis cases increased 143 percent from 2004 (3,411) to 2007 (8,300)."
With that in mind, there are still a few simple steps you can follow in order to at least minimize the chances of falling victim to an RWI:
- First and foremost, do not swallow any water. This applies in all bodies of recreational water, whether a pool, fountain, lake, river, ocean, or water park.
- Do not swim in pools if you have diarrhea.
- If you cannot avoid swimming altogether, at least rinse off in a shower before swimming.
- Likewise, if your child has diarrhea, do not let him/her swim.
- With infants, never change a diaper on the pool deck, only in bathrooms.
- Be sure the pool at least appears clean before getting in. You should be able to clearly see the drain in the deep end of the pool. If the water is murky, the pool chemicals are not being maintained at the correct levels.
Related previous posts to the DC Metro Area Personal Injury Law Blog about pool safety: