Each summer, thousands of people visit their neighborhood swimming pools and water parks seeking relief from the South’s heat and humidity.
What most don’t take into consideration is that they might be risking their health.
Parasites and bacteria that live in the water can potentially make people sick.
Only in South Carolina, there are about 6,000 public pools, as per Robert Yanity, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. DHEC actually issues yearly operating permits for the pools and also performs surprise inspections throughout the summer period.
DHEC however, does not maintain a public online database of swimming pool regulation violators. DHEC conducts three tests on public swimming pools: chlorine and bromine content, pH levels and cyanuric acid levels.
“If all f these chemistry measurements are within the approved levels, the pool should be able to disinfect waste as well as other bacteriological hazards that may pose a risk to swimmers,” Yanity said.
“I never heard of any water-borne illnesses around here that have actually been confirmed,” said Ryan Smith, crew chief at James Island County Park’s Splash Zone and a certified pool operator. “Actually, there is a lot of misinformation. In many cases people will say, ‘I got sick at the pool,’ but if the pool chemistry says no, facts are facts. It’s not possible.”
The funny thing is that the bacteria and parasites that actually thrive in the water, are usually put there by the swimmers themselves.
About one in five Americans admit to urinating in the pool, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the Water Quality and Health Council. And that’s the people who admit it.
“No amount of social shaming will make people stop peeing in pools,” said Sam Goodson, who operates a pool in Briarwood neighborhood near Columbia. “Even Olympic swimmers have admitted to it. Just imagine the number of people who do it and don’t admit it.”
Urine and fecal matter — plus sweat, sunscreen and other lotion — can all use up the chlorine that would otherwise kill germs in chemically treated pools, Goodson said.
When people swallow the water from the pool, they can get Recreational Water Illnesses, a wide variety of skin, ear, respiratory, eye and gastrointestinal infections. The most common RWI is diarrhea, which is caused by germs like E. coli and the parasite cryptosporidium.
In May, the CDC issued a press release warning that crypto outbreaks doubled in the United States between 2014 and 2016, from 16 to 32 cases.
Swallowing just a mouthful of water contaminated with crypto can make otherwise healthy people sick for up to three weeks with watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting, and can lead to dehydration.
“Just don’t do it,” Goodson said. “Keep your mouth closed. Don’t spit water on your friend. It’s not worth the risk.”