Most Public Pools Teeming With Fecal Bacteria, CDC

Christine Hsu
May 16, 2013 02:09 PM EDT

We always worry about people peeing in the pool, but health experts are now saying that pee should be the least of our concerns after a new government report revealed evidence that a majority of public swimming pools are contaminated with poop.

Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detected genetic material from E. coli bacteria in 58 percent of the water samples collected from 161 public pools in the summer of 2012.

E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria are found in the guts and feces of humans.  While some strains are harmless, others can cause serious illness in people like gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections, and meningitis.

The CDC said that the findings show that "swimmers frequently introduce fecal material into pools," by having "fecal incidents" or not showering thoroughly before getting into the water.

Researchers also found genetic material from the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause skin rashes and ear infections, in 59 percent of the samples tested.

The analysis also found traces of Giardia intestinalis and Cryptosporidium spp, bacteria, which can cause diarrhea. However, they were only detected in one or two samples.

The study, published in the latest CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, tested 161 pools in the Atlantic area.  Researchers noted that while the findings may not apply to all pools, the incidence of recreational water illness (RWI) outbreaks of acute gastrointestinal illness throughout the country suggest that "swimmers frequently introduce fecal material and pathogens into recreational water throughout the country," researchers write in the report. Researchers had collected samples from pool filters and tested them for microbe DNA of specific bacteria. 

"It is time to stop treating the swimming pool as a toilet," Michele Hlavsa, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy Swimming Program told NBC News. "Nowhere else except for the pool is it acceptable to poop in public or pee in public. In other places if we did this in public, we'd be arrested."

Hlavsa said that chorine and other pool disinfectants don't kill germs instantly, and that it's very important that people shower before getting in a pool, not swallow the water in the pool and avoid swimming when they have diarrhea or other stomach problems.

 "The average person has about .14 grams of feces on their rear end," Hlavsa said, according to NBC News. "If that rinses off into the water, the amount from one person might not be that much. But as more and more swimmers introduce it that much, it does become an issue."

"Let's imagine 1,000 kids go to a water park. They have as much as 10 grams of feces on their rear ends," she said.  "We are now talking about 10,000 grams or 10 kg. That translates to 24 pounds of poop in the water."

The CDC also recommends that swimmers take bathroom breaks every hour, wash their hands after going to the bathroom or changing diapers and change diapers in the bathroom or not near the poolside.

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