Swim and water fun season kicks off in most areas on Memorial Day weekend and runs through Labor Day with public pools and waterparks in peak use. In fact, more than 300 million trips to public swimming sites take place each year in the U.S., with most in those three months, for sun, fun and exercise. While access to pools, for those without one in their yard, offers a welcome respite, public health officials caution that 80 percent of public pools and hot tubs had health or safety hazards when they were inspected. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 12.5 percent actually fail routine inspections forcing immediate closure.
The CDC analyzed the results from over 84,000 inspections conducted in 2013 at close to 49,000 aquatic facilities in the five states that have the most public pools (California, Florida, Arizona, Texas and New York). The venues had swimming pools, hot tubes, water playgrounds, kiddie/wading pools or “other places where people swim in treated waters.” The inspections included hotels, apartment complexes and other sites, excluding those on the grounds of a private single-family home.
Four out of five pools inspected had some issues that could spread disease or be harmful, such as improper pH levels, disinfectant concentration or safety equipment. That was the good news. More alarming was their finding that nearly a third of local health departments do not bother to regulate or inspect public pools.
Outbreaks of illness from poorly maintained or treated recreational water sites are a growing problem. A single outbreak in a water park or heavily used pool can sicken thousands who might be oblivious as to where they picked up a bug. There were 12 outbreaks a year in the early 1990s; by the late 2000s, the number jumped to 41 per year. In 2007, one outbreak in Ohio affected 665 people.
“No one should get sick or hurt when visiting a public pool, hot tub, or water playground,” commented Beth Bell, M.D., M.P.H., who serves as director of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. “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.”
To minimize risks of infections or drownings (the second leading cause of death for children after motor vehicle crashes), government agencies developed pool regulations and codes for things like minimum and maximum amounts of chlorine in use, testing practices, etc. But, many local health departments and agencies issued differing guidelines or ways to address them. To alleviate confusion and establish a national approach, the CDC published its Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) in 2014 after a seven-year process. The MAHC is a template for local jurisdictions to voluntarily use in governing the design, maintenance and testing of water fun areas.
The CDC emphasized that their five-state analysis was not meant to be representative nationwide. However, the heavily populated states include about 34 percent of the U.S. population and the four Sun Belt ones are sure to have a disproportionate share of public pools.
From a public health perspective, the CDC analysis showing that 80 percent of public pools have health hazards is a wake-up call to people using public swimming spots to be aware of potential risks and use caution. They plan to use the study, which analyzed 2013 data, as a benchmark to measure the effectiveness of the MAHC they introduced in 2014.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Immediate Closures and Violations Identified During Routine Inspections of Public Aquatic Facilities — Network for Aquatic Facility Inspection Surveillance, Five States, 2013
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Healthywater
Patch: Gross! Nearly 80 Percent Of Public Pools Have Health, Safety Problems: CDC
California Department of Public Health: Health and Safety Code Section 11590-115929
Global Direct Investment Solutions: U.S. Population Distribution by State
Photo courtesy of Solitude – Creative Commons license