Don’t Drink the Pool Water! It Contains a Surprising Amount of…Human Waste

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Chlorine is supposed to take care of most of the microbes floating around in pools, but human waste, it seems, is stubbornly resistant to being sanitized.

That’s the conclusion of a group of  researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who collected water samples from 161 filters in public and private swimming pools, as well as water parks in Atlanta last summer. What they found trapped in those filters was enough to make swimmers think twice before logging their laps. More than half of the samples were contaminated with E. coli, which the investigators say comes from one primary source — swimmers pooping in the pool.

The study, published in the latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, specifically looked at pools in Atlanta, but the researchers say such contamination is likely a widespread problem in U.S. pools, thanks to swimmers not washing themselves off before taking a dip. According to the scientists, each of us carries about 0.14 grams of fecal material into the pool — and that doesn’t include accidents or cases of diarrhea. Among municipal pools, the genetic testing for pathogens detected E. coli in 70% of the filters, while 66% of the water parks contained the bacteria and 49% of pools in private clubs showed evidence of the contamination.

“These findings indicate the need for swimmers to help prevent introduction of pathogens, e.g., taking a pre-swim shower and not swimming when ill with diarrhea, [for] aquatics staff to maintain disinfectant level and pH according to public health standards to inactivate pathogens, and state and local environmental health specialists to enforce such standards,” the authors write in their report.

When a pool is properly chlorinated, however, bacteria like E. coli should be killed off, since proper pH levels typically take care of the issue. According to the CDC, it takes less than a minute for E. coli to be inactivated if chlorine levels are adequate, about 16 minutes to control Hepatitis A virus, about 45 minutes to kill off the Giardia parasite and over 10 days for a Crypto parasite.

But just one diarrhea accident can cause an infection for anyone who gets a mouth full of pool water. Fortunately, the testing did not reveal strains of E. coli 0157, a particularly virulent form of the bacteria that was responsible for several outbreaks, and deaths, from serious foodborne illnesses.

According to NPR, because the researchers only analyzed the samples for genetic signatures of different pathogens, they couldn’t determine whether the bugs were alive, and potentially reproducing in the water, but there were no pool-related diseases reported in Atlanta during the summer the samples were gathered.

Thomas Lachocki, the CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation, says that in order to be properly chlorinated,  pools should contain 1-4  parts per million of chlorine and pH levels should be within 7.2–7.8. “You can go to any mass market store and go into the pool chemical aisle and buy test stripes. All of these have chlorine and pH tests. In five seconds, you can do a quick analysis yourself and have an idea of what the various levels are,” he says.

But if you don’t have the time to do your own testing, look for clear water. “You should always be able to see the bottom of the pool clearly. Usually if the water is cloudy, something with the filter or chemicals isn’t right,” says Lachocki. “Clear water doesn’t mean everything is alright, but cloudy water is an absolute positive sign that something is not right.”

Here are some additional recommendations from the CDC for ensuring a bug-free dip:

  • Don’t swim when you have diarrhea.
  • Shower with soap before you start swimming.
  • Take a shower to rinse off before you get back into the water.
  • Take bathroom breaks every 60 minutes.
  • Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
  • Try not to swallow the pool water.

If you have young children:

  • Take children on bathroom breaks every half-hour to hour or check diapers frequently.
  • Change diapers in the bathroom or diaper-changing area and not at poolside where pathogens can rinse into the water

There may be no way to completely sanitize a pool, but the latest analysis of what could be lurking in the water should motivate lifeguards and pool managers to be more vigilant about testing those waters more frequently. People should outnumber the pathogens in any pool.

28 comments
fdavis409
fdavis409

We are so clean, but sickly because we kill most bacteria around us that support life.  Chlorine kills everything, and not every bacterium is bad for us.  And besides, I never heard of anyone getting sick from bacteria infection after swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool; not lakes.  So much for that.

Beersheva
Beersheva

OR drink the pool water? ... this would be a very cheap way of getting fecal transplants.

jeff419
jeff419

Obviously we need the TSA to screen swimmers for proper hygiene before accessing the secure pool zone.

rharris50
rharris50

Several people expressed surprise that "some" pools allow young children in diapers.  In fact, pools in general allow diapers, but they require specific swim diapers designed for the purpose.

BorisIII
BorisIII

I guess I never get sick because I swam in lots of public pools, played in the mud and dirt all the time growing up.

Varuka
Varuka

Have any illnesses been attributed to this, or is this more "OMG! Bacteria!" fluff? Guess what, there's bacteria everywhere! There's billions of them on and in you right now! Even E Coli! Yes you, you have e coli on you right now. The question to be asked is not so much if there is bacteria in the water (there ALWAYS is), but at what concentrations. Bacteria can only cause illness if they are in high enough concentrations, otherwise, we'd all be dead from the millions of harmful bacteria we all carry around with us. Unless there is something wrong with the filtration system and/or the chemistry is off, swimming pool water is the cleanest water you can swim in. Swimming in fresh water lakes doesn't mean swimming in clean water. There are WAY higher concentrations of bacteria, as well as other pathogens, notably amoebas, in fresh water lake than in any properly maintained pool. As someone who has been a swimming pool professional for over a decade, it gets really, really old reading the same exact hysterical, ill informed garbage year after year after year. I've dealt with thousands of pools and customers and not once have I ever heard of someone getting sick from a swimming pool. Of course contamination can take place, but that is not the norm. Would you stop eating at all restaurants if you heard one of them had "bacteria"? Guess what, they all do too! It would be nice if people that wrote scientific articles had a clue as to what they are talking about, instead of just parroting some meaningless, out of context, unexplained statistics.

AdamRussell
AdamRussell

"Take children on bathroom breaks every half-hour to hour or check diapers frequently."

/facepalm

AdamRussell
AdamRussell

If they are still wearing diapers dont let them in the pool!  If you cant trust them not to poop their pants then you cant trust them to not poop in the pool.

SRKSteve
SRKSteve

The good thing is that the CDC has come out with the Model Aquatic Health Code that recommends all swimming pools to install Secondary Disinfection System such as UV Sterilization or Corona Discharge Ozone.   Treating pool water like they do sewage and reclaim water is gaining popularity in our pool industry. Our industry needs to be held accountable for the health and safety of our bathers.  We need to protect ourselves and our children where we can and the proper treatment of pool water is a very big place to start. 

Below is the that link to the MAHC: 

http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/pools/mahc/index.html

Below is the link to Recreational Water Illness by the Center of Disease Control. 

http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/

Below is the link to The World Health Organization Guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments

http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2006/9241546808_eng.pdf

BabaLooey
BabaLooey

Swimming pools:

Sinew, fecal matter, the rotting corpses of dead bugs, ear wax, urine, hair, sweat, eye secretions, blood, foot fungus and various other yummy ingredients.

Enjoy your summer.

TedEmony
TedEmony

Please don't sh!t in my pool... I don't swim in your toilet.

ScottLong
ScottLong

reminds me of a sign i saw at a pool   welcome to our OOL there is no P in it please keep it that way

JonGibson
JonGibson

Swim in no public pools.  Secluded lakes are better... just don't swim alone, or without some type of flotation. 

Hubert39
Hubert39

OK.. don't swim in Atlanta pools..

Didi
Didi

Our city started sending out cards with the water bill (city owned utility) every May.  They remind people not to drink the pool water, disclose how much fecal material pool water is likely to have, even with proper water treatment, and practically beg people not to visit the pool when they're sick.  It's a mandatory 3-day closure if there's a fecal incident in the pool.  Making sure people are aware of the situation ahead of time has helped keep our pools a lot cleaner than they used to be.

JennieCoffinLogan
JennieCoffinLogan

It terrifies me that at this point, in 2013, the news still needs to remind people not to go swimming if they have intestinal distress. 

susanmicrobiologist
susanmicrobiologist

When I took an introductory microbiology course in college, the professor said "the whole world is covered with a layer of bacteria - just try to eat where it's thinnest. " In fact, there are bacteria all around us every day, and with a little common sense, they're no problem for most healthy individuals (of course, the very young, old, and immunosuppressed are a different story). So go ahead and swim, just don't swallow the water, and don't stress too much about it.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@AdamRussell Strangely enough, many pools allow diapered kids.  I always make sure I'm on the other end of the pool, and try to stay away from strange floating objects!

hivemaster
hivemaster

@JonGibson With climate warming, there are nasty parasitic bugs in fresh water that is above a certain temperature.  They get in through your mucus membranes and cause a type of meningitis.

rxlawdude
rxlawdude

@JonGibson That's how you get fatal amoebic encephalitis.  

Remember: "they couldn’t determine whether the bugs were alive, and potentially reproducing in the water, but there were no pool-related diseases reported in Atlanta during the summer the samples were gathered."

I'd take my chances with a pool.  

Peace_2_All
Peace_2_All

@Didi 

"They remind people **not to 'drink' the pool water**" Christ, Didi... didn't know most if not all people didn't realize that consuming pool water was not a good thing to do.  Where are you from?!?!?

Peace...

rharris50
rharris50

@notLostInSpace @AdamRussell  It may be little comfort, but although diapered children are allowed in pools, the requirement is that they be swim diapers designed exactly for that purpose.