How dirty is the public pool? You may never want to swim again


Perhaps you go “aww” when you see a Mommy & Me class with all the little ones decked out in their miniature swim caps, goggles, arm floaties and swimsuits at your local swimming pool.

But you should really be going “ick” if those little swimmers happen to be wearing “waterproof” diapers. Because it turns out there is no such thing as a truly waterproof diaper, according to Nicholas Ashbolt, a professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.

“No child should be wearing a diaper in a pool,” said Ashbolt in a phone interview with Yahoo Canada.

That’s because if a totally adorable little one happens to pee or poo in the pool there is a high likelihood of totally unadorable urine or fecal matter leaking out in to the water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. echoes the professor’s standpoint saying on their website: “The use of swim diapers and swim pants might give users, parents, and pool staff a false sense of security regarding fecal contamination.”

The swim diapers and pants only delay leaking for a few minutes, because while they may “hold some solid feces, they are not leak proof,” according to the CDC website.

That’s not to pin all the stuff floating around your local pool on little ones, people of all ages are contributing to the issue. Adults are not likely to intentionally defecate in a public pool, but some are unintentionally adding their fecal matter to the pool. While showering before taking a dip is “fine,” a quick rinse is just not enough to completely clean every nook and cranny, notes the professor.

But, wait, won’t a properly maintained pool keep me safe, you ask? Sometimes.

Crypto outbreaks

While filters and chlorine in properly maintained pools will generally be enough to kill germs from healthy urine and fecal matter those methods don’t necessarily kill everything fast enough.

There are “crypto” outbreaks caused by fecal matter in public pools “every summer,” says the professor. Cryptosporidium parvum is a parasite that “is resistant to many chlorine-based disinfectants and can't be effectively removed by many filters,” according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. When people get infected with crypto symptoms can include: watery diarrhea, dehydration, lack of appetite, weight loss, stomach cramps or pain, nausea, vomiting and fever. There is no common treatment for crypto, but it will generally clear up on its own in healthy individuals within two weeks. But for those with a compromised immune system crypto can lead to significant malnutrition and wasting.

Over the past two decades crypto has become a common cause of waterborne disease in humans in both Canada and the U.S. Crypto is in the top five most common causes of infectious diarrhea around the globe, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. In Ontario, between 2003 and 2009, there was an average of two to three confirmed cases of cryptosporidiosis reported per 100,000 persons each year. And in Alberta, there was spike in crypto in 2001 with 443 cases reported. That spike in cases was linked with an outbreak in a neighbouring province and contaminated local swimming pools. By 2004, the number of cases had fallen down to 104 in Alberta. But, crypto continues to be an issue across North America and around the world.

That’s partly why the CDC recently launched a public awareness campaign that went viral online when it was revealed that the ‘chlorine’ smell you smell this time of year at pools is actually the smell of the chemicals that form when chlorine mixes with pee, poop, sweat and dirt from swimmers’ bodies.

The CDC’s top tips to help keep germs out of the water:

  1. Stay out of the water if you have diarrhea

  2. Shower before you get in the water

  3. Don’t pee or poop in the water

  4. Don’t swallow the water

The professor, who has studied water for over 30 years on five different continents, adds that if you have diarrhea you should stay out of public swimming pools for at least two weeks after symptoms stop, as you may still be infectious.

No. 1 is also a top issue

While not many people do, or would admit to, pooping in the pool or the ocean peeing in the water is fairly common. A whopping 58 per cent of Canadians, and 64 per cent of Americans, admitted to going No. 1 in the pool or the ocean, according to a recent survey by Travelzoo. The rest of those surveyed might be have been telling a white lie, as a Purdue University study findings suggest that “more than 90 percent of uric acid introduced to pools comes from human urine.”

While the issue of burning eyes being cause by pee was recently burning up on social media that might be the least of swimmers’ worries.

A 2014 Purdue study found uric acid in urine generates potentially hazardous "volatile disinfection byproducts" in swimming pools by interacting with chlorine. The CDC has documented cases in which people became ill after breathing contaminants at improperly maintained indoor swimming pools. Of particular concern are nitrogen-containing disinfection byproducts, which are more likely than other byproducts to be carcinogenic and to cause cell damage, according to a press release about the study that was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

So, whether it’s a No. 1 or No.2, letting loose in the pool is clearly rude and possibly dangerous to your fellow swimmers.

Knowing everything he knows about what’s swimming around in the water of local swimming pools does the professor dare to take the plunge now and then?

“I used to do a fair amount of swimming,” said Ashbolt. Not anymore.

He suggests getting far away from a pool filled with people, big and small, who may pee or poo right next to you and go jump in a deserted lake instead -- once you’ve checked the E. coli levels first, of course.

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