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In Hot Water: Thousands of Public Pools Fail Health Inspections

Health and safety violations in public pools and swim parks are widespread, and can create serious hazards for swimmers, according to the CDC. (Image credit: Karin Hildebrand Lau)

As temperatures climb this summer, public pools and water parks certainly look like a refreshing way to beat the heat. Ready to shuck your flip-flops and take the plunge?

Not so fast. Before you dive in, you should probably check with the facility about its inspection status, health officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn.

According to a study published online May 20 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, thousands of venues in the U.S. where people swim or wade in treated water — public pools, hot tubs, water playgrounds and parks — had to be closed in 2013 due to health and safety violations. And in 1 in 8 of those closures, conditions were so unhealthy or unsafe that the venue had to be shut down immediately, the report said. [Tips for Keeping Kids Safe in Swimming Pools]

For the report, researchers looked at data from the Network for Aquatic Facility Inspection Surveillance (NAFIS) database gathered in 2013. The data came from local inspection agencies in the five states in the U.S. with the most public aquatic facilities: California, Texas, Arizona, Florida and New York.

In total, officials carried out 84,187 inspections at 48,632 venues, according to the report. In 7,662 of the inspections, officials found violations related to disinfectant concentrations, and those violations create opportunities for the spread of infectious diseases.

There were also 7,845 violations related to safety equipment, which could mean there was an increased risk of drowning at the facility. And 471 inspections detailed chemical safety violations that could result in respiratory distress or burns.

Some of these violations could be addressed and remedied quickly. But in 8,118 cases, inspectors identified serious violations — such as an absence of safety equipment or insufficient chlorine in the water — that required a location's immediate closure, the report stated.

Kiddie pools saw the highest proportion of shutdowns — 1 in 5 kiddie pools that were inspected had to be shut down immediately. And about 80 percent of all of the inspections recorded at least one violation, the report found.

The study's authors said their findings could help identify venues that need more frequent inspections or closer oversight, in order to promote a safer, healthier environment for the public.

CDC guidelines dictate that public pools and aquatic venues must have adequate safety equipment, particularly in the absence of lifeguards. (Image credit: Torsak Thammachote)

A gut feeling

In a public pool, appearances can deceive. Water may look clean and clear, but if it hasn't been treated properly, visitors may get sick, said the report's lead author, Michele C. Hlavsa, who leads the CDC's Healthy Swimming Program. The outbreaks most commonly linked to public pools and water parks are gastrointestinal illnesses, which are usually introduced by a swimmer with diarrhea, Hlavsa told Live Science.

Inadequate disinfectant levels or a pH that is outside a certain range could allow pathogens to survive in contaminated water, where they might be swallowed and make people sick, Hlavsa said.

Maintaining a correct disinfectant level in public water venues is critical, Hlavsa said, and requires preserving a careful balance between the amount of disinfectant — chlorine or bromine, which kill harmful bacteria — and the water's pH, which determines how well the disinfectant works.

The CDC recommends that pools maintain chlorine levels of about 1 part per million (ppm) for public water facilities such as pools and parks, and 3 ppm for public hot tubs and Jacuzzis. Adding chlorine to water raises its pH, but if the pH climbs too high, the chlorine won't kill germs effectively, Hlavsa said. However, swimmers are most comfortable in the water when the pH is between 7.2 and 7.8 — the pH range of the human body, she added.

The CDC suggests that lifeguards and pool maintenance workers check the disinfectant and pH levels of the water at least twice daily, and that they add an acid to the water if required, to lower the pH to the recommended level. [5 Tips for Safe Summer Swimming]

Pool drains should be secure and in good repair, so as not to snag on bathing suits, hair or jewelry and endanger swimmers. (Image credit: Fotosearch)

Making the grade

Inspections to enforce CDC standards in public aquatic facilities are supposed to happen one to three times each year, and venues are required to post their inspection scores either on-site or online. But Hlavsa told Live Science that about one-third of local health departments don't perform inspections regularly.

Hlavsa recommended that anyone planning a visit to a recreational water facility do their homework beforehand to make sure there are no known violations that could compromise their health and safety.

Hlavsa added that pool and park visitors can conduct basic checks on-site, to make sure that a venue is safe.

Water-testing strips are widely available and can be used to quickly confirm whether chlorine and pH levels are in a safe range for swimmers. Hlavsa suggested that people should also look for safety equipment, such as rescue rings and poles with ropes, particularly if no lifeguard is on duty. Water should be clean and unclouded, so that a swimmer in trouble can be spotted easily under the surface. And all drain covers should be secure and in good shape, and free of parts that could snag on swimsuits, hair or dangling jewelry.

It's also important to shower before entering a pool, to remove traces of contaminants carried on your skin and hair, Hlavsa said.

A set of guidelines developed by the CDC — the Model Aquatic Health Code — is available to help local communities and state agencies maintain standards and enforce practices that will ultimately improve health and safety during summer aquatic recreation. The first edition was released online Aug. 29, 2014, and an updated version is expected to be published this summer, the CDC said in a statement.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Mindy Weisberger is a senior writer for Live Science covering general science topics, especially those relating to brains, bodies, and behaviors in humans and other animals — living and extinct. Mindy studied filmmaking at Columbia University; her videos about dinosaurs, biodiversity, human origins, evolution, and astrophysics appear in the American Museum of Natural History, on YouTube, and in museums and science centers worldwide. Follow Mindy on Twitter.