With temperatures reaching triple digits this summer in the National Capital Region, a dip in the pool or visit to the nearest water park or beach may sound refreshing, but venturing into public waters can also be hazardous if the water is not safe.
While water safety entails never swimming alone, the use of life vests, swimming only in designated areas with life guards and keeping a close eye on small children and inexperienced swimmers, it also includes healthy swimming.
“Healthy swimming allows us to participate in water-related activities while preventing adverse health events, such as recreational water illnesses (RWIs),” said Hospital Corpsman Third Class Justin D. Williams of the Preventive Medicine Clinic at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).
Recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are caused by germs spread through contaminated water in swimming pools, water parks, water play areas, hot tubs, decorative and interactive water fountains, beaches, oceans, lakes and rivers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“RWIs can also be caused by chemicals in water that evaporate causing indoor air quality problems,” Williams added. He explained RWIs include a variety of infections associated with gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections. The most commonly reported RWI is diarrhea, the CDC says.
Diarrheal RWI is caused by swallowing contaminated water, while other RWIs (skin, ear, eye, respiratory, neurologic, wound and other infections) are caused by germs that live naturally in the environment (for example, in water and soil), according to the CDC. If disinfectant levels in pools or hot tubs are not maintained at the appropriate levels, these germs can multiply and cause illness when swimmers breathe in mists or aerosols of, or have contact with the contaminated water.
“In pools and hot tubs with the correct pH and disinfectant levels, chlorine will kill most germs that cause RWIs in less than an hour. However, chlorine takes longer to kill some germs, such as cryptosporidium (that can cause diarrheal illnesses), which can survive for days even in a properly disinfected pool. This is why it’s important for swimmers to keep germs out of the water in the first place,” states the CDC.
“Anyone can become infected with RWI; however, children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems (for example, people living with AIDS, individuals who have received an organ transplant, or people receiving certain types of chemotherapy) can suffer from more severe RWIs if infected,” Williams said.
The CDC recommends these steps for all swimmers to help prevent germs from causing RWIs: don’t swim when you have diarrhea; don’t swallow pool water; and practice good hygiene (shower with soap before swimming, and wash your hands after using the rest room or changing diapers).
Other recommendations from the CDC include: taking kids on bathroom breaks and checking diapers often (waiting to hear “I have to go” may mean that it’s too late); changing diapers in a bathroom or diaper-changing area and not at poolside where germs can spread in and around the pool; and washing children thoroughly with soap and water after they’ve used the restroom.
When it comes to swimming at the beach, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s BEACH Program (Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure, and Health Program) is designed to help local government officials provide people with water quality information.
Most water at beaches is safe for swimming, according to the EPA. However, monitoring of beach water quality by local and environmental officials is necessary to warn people when there is a problem.
If the beach you frequent is not monitored regularly, the EPA recommends: avoid swimming after heavy rains; looking for storm drains along the beach designed to drain polluted water from streets, and avoid swimming near them; looking for trash and other signs of pollution such as oil slicks in the water; and contacting local health and environmental protection officials if you think your beach water is contaminated.
For more information about beach monitoring, check the EPA’s Beach Watch website at http://www.epa.go v/OST/beaches.
For more information concerning healthy swimming, visit CDC’s Healthy Swimming website at www.c dc.gov/healthywater/swimming.