Keep Germs Out of the Pool

It is important to be aware of ways to prevent water-related adverse health events, such as recreational water illnesses.

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Every year, swimming pools are filled with millions of people having fun and staying cool, but most are unaware that they may become ill from germs in the water. Swimming and other water-related activities are excellent ways to get the physical activity needed for a healthy life. However, it is important to be aware of ways to prevent water-related adverse health events, such as recreational water illnesses (RWIs).

Recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are caused by germs spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools and hot tubs. These recreational water illnesses are caused by germs like “Crypto” (short for Cryptosporidium), E. coli O157:H7 and Shigella, and are spread by accidentally swallowing water that has been contaminated with fecal matter. These germs can contaminate water in swimming pools, hot tubs, waterparks, lakes and the ocean.

Germs causing recreational water illnesses are killed by chlorine, but chlorine doesn't work right away. It takes time to kill germs. Plus, some germs like Crypto are resistant to chlorine and can live in pools for days. That is why even the best maintained pools can spread illness.

Healthy swimming behaviors are needed to protect you and your family from recreational water illnesses. Practicing these behaviors will help stop germs from getting in the pool. Follow these six "pleas" from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy Swimming Project:

* Please don't swim when you have diarrhea. This is especially important for kids in diapers. You can spread germs into the water and make other people sick.

* Please don't swallow pool water. In fact, try your best to avoid even having water get in your mouth.

* Please wash your hands with soap and water after using the toilet or changing diapers. You can protect others by remembering that germs on your body end up in the water.

* Please take your kids on bathroom breaks often. Waiting to hear "I have to go" may mean that it's too late.

* Please change diapers in a bathroom and not at poolside. Germs can spread to surfaces and objects in and around the pool.

* Please wash your child thoroughly (especially his or her rear end) with soap and water before swimming. We all have invisible amounts of fecal matter on our bottoms that end up in the pool.

Protecting swimmers and their families from recreational water illnesses (RWIs) is the reason to regularly check both chlorine and pH levels. Chlorine and pH, your disinfection team, are the first defense against germs that can make swimmers sick.

What does chlorine do?

Chlorine kills germs in pools--but it takes time to work. Therefore, it’s important to make sure chlorine levels are always at the levels recommended by the health department (usually between 1.0 - 3.0 ppm).

Why does chlorine need to be tested regularly?

All sorts of things can reduce chlorine levels in pool water. Some examples are sunlight, dirt, debris, and material from swimmers' bodies. That’s why chlorine levels must be routinely measured. However, the time it takes for chlorine to work is also affected by the other member of the disinfection team, pH.

Why is pH important?

Two reasons. First, the germ-killing power of chlorine varies with pH level. As pH goes up, the ability of chlorine to kill germs goes down. Second, a swimmer’s body has a pH between 7.2 and 7.8, so if the pool water isn’t kept in this range then swimmers will start to feel irritation of their eyes and skin. Keeping the pH in this range will balance chlorine’s germ-killing power while minimizing skin and eye irritation.

What else can be done to promote Healthy Swimming?

The best way to kill germs is by routinely measuring and adjusting both chlorine and pH levels. Since a few germs can survive for long periods in even the best maintained pools, it is also important that swimmers become aware of Healthy Swimming behaviors (don’t swim when ill with diarrhea, don’t swallow pool water, take frequent bathroom breaks, and practice good hygiene). Combining Healthy Swimming behaviors with good chlorine and pH control will reduce the spread of RWIs.

For more information about how to protect yourself and your family from recreational water illnesses, visit

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Keywords: pool, chlorine, clean, health, recreational water illnesses

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