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Health officials remind parents about dirty pool water

WEST VALLEY CITY — Erika Rowland's 6-year-old daughter, Savannah, isn't afraid of anything, she says.

Not of the Centennial Swimming Pool, where hordes of children are splashing around on a hot summer day. Not of the big green water slide that she climbs on over and over.

And she's not afraid, either, of what many parents view with trepidation as they keep a watchful eye at their local pools — dirty water.

"I hope other parents wouldn't bring their kids if they were sick, because I wouldn't," said Rowland, who noted that water safety rules seem to have tightened since she was on the swim team in high school.

On Tuesday, as they do with the start of every summer season, Salt Lake County Health Department officials sought to reassure parents like Rowland with what they call their “poop in the pool” report.

Fear about the diarrhea-causing disease cryptosporidiosis, or crypto, is caused by a hardy microscopic parasite that lives in the intestine of humans and animals.

One watery bowel movement can release 100 million to 1 billion crypto germs, according to Salt Lake County environmental health supervisor Rick Ledbetter. Ingesting even a small number of crypto parasites can result in infection.

The last crypto outbreak in Utah in 2007 — when the Utah Department of Health recorded 1,902 cases of lab-confirmed crypto — was one of the largest communitywide outbreaks in U.S. history.

The median age of infected patients in that outbreak was 9 years old, according to a report from the county health department. Eight percent were hospitalized.

"We do not want to revisit that," Ledbetter said.

Changes made as a result of that outbreak are the reason why the county is “an example nationwide of what to do with crypto cases," water quality bureau manager Teresa Gray said.

She said the 2007 outbreak caught public health officials by surprise because the parasite is resistant to chlorine.

In an effort to control the spread, the county health department championed several new regulations, including requiring people to wait at least two weeks after having diarrhea before going to a community pool, requiring children under 3 to wear swim diapers and waterproof pants, and banning poolside diaper-changing.

Many pools — including all of the 19 aquatic centers overseen by the parks and recreation division — also installed expensive UV systems that zap the crypto before swimmers can be exposed to it, Gray said.

Salt Lake County Health Department — which oversees about 1,100 community, hotel and gym pools — has about half the closure rate of pools nationwide.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last month based on five states with the most public pools and hot tubs — Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Texas — found that almost 13 percent of inspections resulted in immediate closure due to serious health and safety violations.

Salt Lake County Health Department public pools have a closure rate of 7 percent.

Crypto activity in Utah has been low since 2007, according to Ledbetter. Last year, the health department identified 11 cases, including five patients who said they had recently gone to a pool, he said.

Ledbetter called the public the "first line of defense" against crypto.

"Keep the poop out of the pool," he said. Guidelines include:

  • Neither adults nor children should swim for two weeks after they have diarrhea.
  • Every time someone goes into the pool, including after bathroom breaks, he or she should first shower with soap.
  • Take frequent bathroom breaks and make sure small children do, too. Change diapers in the bathroom, not by the pool, and wash both your hands and your child's bottom thoroughly.

If people follow those rules, parents should not fear bringing their children to the pool, Gray said.

"Enjoy the sunny weather, enjoy the pool," she said. "That's what summer's all about."

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DaphneChen_