For many families, summer means water — in pools, water parks and maybe even a hotel hot tub. But before you dive in, consider the many ways H2O in public places can make you sick.
According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people than ever are getting ill after swimming in public pools and water parks. Jeff Rossen, an investigative correspondent for NBC News and the "Today" show, collected water samples and had them analyzed to see if they’re right.
A sample Rossen drew from one public pool contained enterococci — the scientific euphemism for fecal matter.
And one collected from a water park contained enterococci, plus E. coli and total coliform. Although naturally occurring in the human intestinal tract, the stuff is nasty enough that if it’s found in your water supply, you’re supposed to boil the water.
All three comprise to form “the perfect cocktail to make you sick,” Rossen reported on "Today."
Rossen interviewed Dr. Robert Glatter, an ER physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, who explained how water that looks so clean can be so contaminated.
“It means that someone basically went to the bathroom and didn’t clean themselves properly, or actually went to the bathroom in the pool,” Glatter said.
And what about the chlorine that’s supposed to sanitize the water?
“It cleans some of it, but not all of it. Actually, the heat in the pool allows the bacteria to thrive,” Glatter told the "Today" audience.
Too much chlorine carries risks. At one pool Rossen had tested, the chlorine content was “sky high." On a scale of 1-10, it measured 10. Three, Rossen said, is ideal.
Excess chlorine can cause breathing problems and even chemical burns for children with sensitive skin, he said.
The reason for that is equally gross, the CDC says. Chlorine binds to the body waste of swimmers (not just urine, but sweat), and forms chemicals called chloramines. Chloramines can irritate our skin, eyes and respiratory tract, and we’re not even safe from them sitting in a lounge chair poolside. They build up not only in water, but also in the air if the pool area is not properly vented, the CDC says.
All that said, the CDC doesn’t want us to stay out of the water. It notes that swimming is the fourth most popular sports activity in the U.S., and that swimmers have half the risk of death of sedentary people.
But health officials suggest that we buy chlorine test strips and test the water before plunging in at a public place. You can buy a box of 50 for less than $15 online.
The pH should be 7.2-7.8 in pools and hot tubs; the chlorine concentration at least 3 parts per million in hot tubs and 1 ppm in pools; and the bromine concentration at least 4 ppm in hot tubs and at least 3 ppm in pools.
Also, parents should check the pool’s inspection report, which should be publicly posted.
Never enter a pool or hot tub, or allow your child to, with an open wound not covered with a waterproof bandage. Shower before you get in, and be careful not to swallow any water.
And when you get out, gently towel-dry your ears, and tilt your head to let any remaining water drain out, or use a hair dryer on its lowest setting to help get the water out. Painful “swimmer’s ear” can occur when contaminated water lingers.