Stay healthy and safe while enjoying water play this summer and all year round

Following simple guidelines can protect you and your family members from water-related illness and injury.

As the school year winds down and warmer weather arrives, families will be spending time at pools, lakes, water parks, hot tubs, and other water play areas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that swimming is the fourth most popular sport activity in the United States and is an excellent way to achieve the 2.5 hours per week of aerobic exercise recommended by health professionals. While enjoying these many health benefits of water-based exercise, it is important to safe guard against illnesses and injuries that can occur.

Annually, the CDC designates the week before Memorial Day as National Healthy and Safe Swimming Week to remind families how to do so.

The theme of their 2015 campaign, “Make a Healthy Splash: Share the Fun, not the Germs”, offers simple steps to ensure everyone has a healthy and safe experience while swimming or engaging in other water play. In addition to water users themselves, the CDC notes that staffs at beaches and pools, owners of residential pools, and public health officials all have important roles to play in preventing drowning, injuries, and recreational water illnesses.

What is a recreational water illness and what causes it? The CDC defines recreational water illness (RWI) as an illness caused by germs or chemicals found in the water in which we swim or play. Illness can occur from “germs spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers, and oceans”. There are several types of RWIs that can occur. Most common is diarrhea which can be caused by various germs including Shigella, norovirus, Giardia, Cryptosprodium (also known as Crypto), and E.coli O157:H7. Skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections are other common RWIs. Individuals with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, and young children are most vulnerable to RWIs.

To prevent the spread of germs, chemicals are often used to treat the water in pools and other water play areas. At times, these products themselves can result in a RWI. This may occur from direct exposure to the chemical in the water or when chemicals evaporate and cause indoor air quality issues. Judicious use of such chemicals, proper monitoring of their levels in the water, and good ventilation are important steps that can prevent this from happening.

A water play area is newer type of water attraction that has caused additional water safety issues. These structures are sometimes called a splash pad, interactive fountain, spray park, wet deck, or spray pad. Unlike pools, hot tubs, and lakes, they contain very little or no standing water. However, the spray water used in them is recycled. Any contaminants introduced into the water will be carried into the water holding tank and sprayed again. There have been reports and studies noting young children having ingested contaminated water in one of these water play areas and becoming ill. Health officials have now realized the need for secondary means of disinfection including ultraviolet light or ozone. Not all municipalities and states may have yet enacted codes to ensure these water play areas are adequately protected. Parents are encouraged to investigate the water treatment regime at such facilities before taking their children there to play.

As mentioned above, pools, hot tubs, and other manmade water attractions generally utilize disinfecting chemicals to kill germs that may be introduced into the water by users. While pool chemicals are routinely added to water to kill germs, they do not work instantaneously. If the water has been treated correctly, most germs will be killed in a few minutes but some, like Crypto, can survive for several days even in water that has been properly treated. When these chemicals have to use some of their germ-killing power to break down other substances such as sweat, dirt, vomit, urine, or feces, they are less effective in eliminating germs in the water. Regular testing of the water is critical as is re-applying of chemicals in the amount testing indicates is needed. The best prevention, however, is to ensure that germs do not get introduced into the body of water that you and family members are enjoying.

What steps can you take to minimize the risk of a water-related illness for yourself, family members, and others using the site?

  • Practice good swimmer hygiene
  • Shower before getting in the water and stay out of the water if ill with diarrhea
  • Use swim diapers for children who are not completely toilet-trained and take young children on bathroom breaks hourly. If a swim diaper needs changing, do so in the restroom or designated diaper-changing area rather than on the beach or poolside to avoid introducing germs into the lake or pool.
  • Whether in a lake, pool, hot tub, or type of water play area, do not swallow the water and avoid inhaling any mist created by the attraction.

To learn more about maintaining a healthy and safe lifestyle for yourself and family members, visit the Michigan State University Extension website. Resources include informative articles on a wide variety of topics, programs and workshops, contact details for county Extension offices and access to subject matter experts

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