How To Spot A Contaminated Swimming Pool, And Why You Should

It’s gray and rainy up here in the tropical paradise of upstate New York, but for those of you in more temperate climes, Consumer Reports Health kicks off the weekend with some frightening statistics about the American public’s pool hygiene, and how to tell whether a pool will make you sick or not before you dive in.

A recent survey by the Water Quality and Health Council found that 47 percent of Americans admit to one or more behaviors that contribute to an unhealthy pool. Notably, one in five pee in the pool, and 35 percent skip the pre-swimming shower.

Swimming pool rules_ Hygiene might be lacking in part because 63 percent say they are unaware of the illnesses associated with swallowing, breathing, or having contact with contaminated pool water. Such illnesses-known as recreational water illnesses (RWIs) -have been on the rise over the last couple of decades according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RWIs can lead to diarrhea, respiratory illness, and ear and skin infections, and can be especially dangerous for children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.

Maybe we need a massive public information campaign, the centerpiece of which is large posters proclaiming, “DON’T URINATE IN THE DAMN POOL.”

Health Weekender: The good, the bad, and the ‘P’ in the pool [Consumer Reports Health]

(Photo: temponotempo)

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  1. Bigsky99 says:

    Awww that pic reminds me of my cat who drowned. We didn’t see it but think she bent over to drink pool water and her legs gave out as she was kind of an old cat and you know the rest :(

  2. thegirls says:

    Oops, I don’t remember taking many pre-swimming showers as a kid.

    • MyPetFly says:

      @thegirls:

      We had showers at the local pool, but you’d just sort of spend a few seconds under the spray, a token effort.

    • KingPsyz says:

      @thegirls:

      Does anyone pre-shower at home? That’s wastefull since we all shower after we get out.

      Does cleaning, chlorinating, and balancing the pool counter act not doing this?

      • doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

        @PSN: kingpsyz: You shower before (especially at the Y) to get all the stink and sweat and bad bad things OFF of you.
        It’s the same reason you should WIPE OFF the gym equipment when you are done ‘not sweating’ on it. I have my OWN germs, thank you very much.

      • Outrun1986 says:

        @PSN: kingpsyz: The showering was always done after you got out over here as well. I don’t think anyone showered before going in the pool.

        • yagisencho says:

          @Outrun1986:

          I don’t remember if pre-swim showers were enforced for our 2nd & 3rd grade swimming lessons. However, at age 8 or 9, kids who bathed daily were unlikely to be all that sweaty or slimy. That came with puberty.

          Plenty of peeing happened in that pool, however.

      • krista says:

        @PSN: kingpsyz: The pre-shower is to rinse off sand or dirt particles, and remove body oils and hair or makeup products, which are very hard to remove with standard pool cleaning chemicals. It’s not really about bacteria.

  3. Judge_Smails says:

    And when a pool smells like it has too much chlorine, that usually means just the opposite. The free (good) chlorine is gone and the combined (bad) chlorine is really high.

    And god help you if you get into one of those giant germ cauldrons known as whirlpools.

  4. Owen Yun says:

    Hence why I do not par-take in swimming at the local recreational pool. That picture with the cat.. poor thing is about to get the swine flu. :P

  5. Judge_Smails says:

    Forgot to add, if the pool has too many people in it for your liking, toss in an unwrapped Baby Ruth, ala Caddyshack.

  6. Canino says:

    “recreational water illnesses (RWIs) -have been on the rise over the last couple of decades”

    That information isn’t very valuable. There are more pools in the US than a couple of decades ago, so of course there are going to be more RWIs. I bet there are a proportionate number of injuries, accidents, drownings, etc.

    A more valuable statistic would be the number of RWIs per pool, or the number of pool hours per RWI. I’d be willing to bet those numbers are not materially different than they were before, and that they might have even gone down due to better filtration equipment and methods on newer pools.

    • KingPsyz says:

      @Canino:
      All I know is the peeing isn’t as bad as a kid pooing in the pool.

      My girlfriend’s nephew pooed in his shorts last summer and didn’t tell anyone. We found the diaperesque proof later.

      My prize?

      A leg rash for a month that literally ate away at my calfs. A doctor told me I might as well had bathed in infected cowshit and with medicine took about 2 more weeks to clear.

    • qxrt says:

      @Canino: Well, it’s given with the context of the percentage of Americans who don’t use hygienic methods or pee in the pool, so the fact that RWI’s are increasing is mostly a side point, not the main one. It’s a symptom of unhygienic behavior.

  7. Shoelace says:

    I won’t put more than my feet into a public swimming pool. They’re used as toilets (intentionally or not – I’ve been at more than a few pools that had to be evacuated due to poop accidents).

    If 100 people were handed a glass of swimming pool water from the middle of a hot day and told what was in it – both chemical and ‘organic’ – but not that it came from a pool, I wonder how many would be willing to take a swallow of it?

    • hedonia says:

      @Shoelace: I would hope it would be zero, the same number of people that would be willing to swallow it out of the actual pool. I don’t get your point.

      • Shoelace says:

        @hedonia: People don’t go out of their way to swallow pool water but many people inadvertently do and don’t think twice about it.

        I’ll rephrase my question to offer each of the 100 people money to take a swallow from the glass and see how much it ends up costing.

        • Megalomania says:

          @Shoelace: Your glass of water will not have an appreciable free chlorine residual or be constantly filtered through a sand or DE system or, in some cases, a UV filter (in complement to the sand/DE).

          While I would agree that any a) outdoor pool seasonal pool or b) pool in a densely populated urban area or a rural area, an indoor suburban pool will generally be run by staff who have more reason to care about their job.

  8. Trai_Dep says:

    Don’t jump, kitty, don’t jump!

    Kitteh: “To hell with mice, now I hunt fish!

    [Caption]: Kitty, overwhelmed by the blues, prepares to jump

    • mac-phisto says:

      @Trai_Dep: if i was behind that kitteh, he so would’ve gotten a nudge from my boot.

      simply for the wealth of photographic material, of course! ;)

    • silver-bolt says:

      @Trai_Dep: Silly kitty, fishings for bears.

    • segfault, registered cat offender says:

      @Trai_Dep:
      If I were there, the cat would have wound up plopped into the water, followed by my gleeful laughter.

      • Trai_Dep says:

        @segfault: You do realize that Grimlins was based on field research done on cats forced into large bodies of water, right? Except the typical house kitteh thrown in water not only multiplies tenfold, but its furious progeny boasts shoulder-mounted laser cannons?

        They would have used cats in the film but:
        a) too gratuitous for the kiddies
        b) having to add Kitteh subtitles would have killed domestic box office
        c) stuntmen worried there wasn’t enough Perfect Oatmeal on the set, threatening to quit.

  9. Trai_Dep says:

    I’ve found that pools can be quickly cleaned by grabbing the slowest children standing poolside then dunking them until the water’s all gone.

  10. Trai_Dep says:

    If your city (or university) has a decent Olympic or half-Olympic sized pool with a good swimming program, I’ve found the water quality is excellent.
    The swimmers know how to get wet, while the staff knows how to treat the pool.

    The suburban wading-pool type ones, OTOH…

  11. BustedFlush says:

    I’m not saying it’s acceptable practice, but I don’t see how urine, while gross, would contribute to “RWI”.

    Unless you’ve got a raging bladder infection, urine is sterile.

    • floraposte says:

      @BustedFlush: Not quite. Urine is sterile in the bladder, if you’re healthy. It picks up exciting things upon departure and is found quite tasty by microbes outside of the body. And, of course, plenty of people do have kidney and urinary tract infections.

      • BustedFlush says:

        @floraposte:

        Exciting things that wouldn’t be on any other part of your body?

        Much as I try I just can’t get worked up over this. I’ve swum in public pools all my life. I don’t put covers on the toilet seat at work. I don’t put my bologna sandwich in the fridge there either. Double-dippers don’t freak me out. I often taste the food I make for my family with the same spoon I stir with.

        I’m just a menace to society I guess, but I’m never sick.

        • edwardso says:

          @BustedFlush: Except for bologna, I’m with you

        • Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

          @BustedFlush: Fuckin’ A dude, preach it! I feel so relieved… someone else who shares these ideals.

          My kids probably get their fair share of the dirt we ingested as kids, and I don’t panic and throw purell around like they could die tomorrow. And they are all as healthy as could be.

          How is your immune system supposed to learn to fight crap without getting exposed? I’m sure I look like an awful parent right now LOL.

          • Mary Marsala with Fries says:

            @verucalise: er, NO to peeing in swimming pools (if for nothing else then EW, GROSS) — but I’m also with you on the anti-germophobia.

            My mother’s a nurse, so we’re really clean about her work clothes and things — because nothing but nothing is as nasty as stuff that’s been in a hospital — and while she certainly “brings home” a nasty bug from time to time, we’re all pretty shockingly resistant to everything. Even when we get the hospital bugs, it’s usually short and mild.

            Why? I think because we don’t use antibacterial soap, don’t sterilize our hands or tools unless we’re about to do something internal (medical, sexual, etc.) with them, and don’t freak out about sharing spoons and what have you.

            Mom is absolutely a health nut — you don’t work in nursing for 30 years without getting pretty evangelical about it — but she’s more likely to cuss out parents for refusing to let their children run barefoot or swim in a lake, than for kissing strangers or whatever.

            As she puts it, “Good germs are a lot better for you than bad germs are bad for you!”. It’s only worth excluding *all* germs from things like open wounds; your body was meant to handle them otherwise.

            • Trai_Dep says:

              @Mary Marsala with Fries: I’ve also read that some are suggesting that the rise in allergies is a result from kids not playing in the dirt more often. We’re too clean, which results in parsnicky immune systems, which result in more allergies.
              So kids: get messy. NOW, damn it!

            • Teapotfox says:

              @Mary Marsala with Fries: The first week of my employment in a big hospital, I got the very worst case of the flu I have ever had… I was basically out sick for most of my second week, and I was concerned about how that looked to my new employer. The nurse practitioner to whom I reported told me not to worry about it, she said that’s often what happens to people who aren’t used to working in a hospital environment. I don’t think I was sick again with anything at all for the rest of my time there, but that was one heck of an introduction!

              Side note: one thing I definitely took away from my time there is how to properly wash my hands… I’m surprised by how many people don’t know that. I definitely share your attitudes toward germs, though. Your mom’s adage is a good one.

        • deep.thought says:

          @BustedFlush: Yes. Overuse of antibiotics could very well lead to a devastating pandemic. They basically shift evolution into high gear, not a good thing. Not to mention the result of having a weak immune system.

        • Nick1693 says:

          @BustedFlush: I’m 14 and I feel the same way. Before everyone was thinking about Swine Flu, I used Purell maybe once a week. While everyone was freaking out about it, I never used Purell and I washed my hands as any normal person would.

          Remember when parents would tell their kids to go out and have fun (without the use of cell phones as tracking devices)?

      • FLConsumer says:

        @floraposte: Then WHATEVER you do, DON’T swim in the ocean or use municipal water supply water to bathe in. You should see the number of microbes found in your tap water. Fortunately, the large volume of water dilutes this to insignificant amounts.

  12. mac-phisto says:

    i used to lifeguard at a semi-public pool. let me tell you something: sadly, urinating in the pool isn’t the worst thing that can happen. at least once a month we had to shock the pool b/c someone defecated or threw up in it (& only rarely was that a child). we had an old man’s colostomy bag bust open once – that was fun.

    but the worst? sex acts. that’s right. open swim, 50-100 people in the pool & some real twisted folks start going at it in the corner of the deep end. WHISTLE “everybody out; pools closed. you can thank these two lovebirds right. over. HERE!”

    i caught about 1/2 dozen couples trying to pull that off which always left me wondering: how many didn’t i catch?

    • Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

      @mac-phisto: mu hahaha…. and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. You’ll never catch us!!

    • dvdchris says:

      @mac-phisto: And what about all the boys that are a little too happy hanging on the side of the pool in front of a water jet? I think there’s body fluids let loose in the pool more times than we like to think about.

  13. loquaciousmusic says:

    My sister contracted MRSA after an otherwise relaxing jaunt in a hot tub.

    Gross.

  14. HiPwr says:

    The article doesn’t mention it, but I think people whom also have expreienced Restless Leg Syndrome and fibromyalgia are particularly at risk for RWIs.

    I hope a pharmaceutical company comes up with a drug that targets RWIs.

  15. Outrun1986 says:

    And to think that when I was a kid I drank that pool water not knowing any better, either accidently or sometimes I would just drink it when I was thirsty. Never got sick from going in a pool.

    • floraposte says:

      @Outrun1986: Except it’s hard to know, because it’s not like pool-borne illness comes with a little ID tag. If you developed an earache, or stuffy/runny nose, or diarrhea as a kid during the season you were swimming, it could well have been from the pool.

  16. HogwartsAlum says:

    Yeeks. Makes me glad I spent my Dubya check on a backyard aboveground pool. Which is going up this weekend, yeah! ;)

    Luckily my kitteh is scared of it and won’t go near it.

  17. dosdelon says:

    There’s a reason why Cartman didn’t want to go swimming…

  18. shadowplay says:

    My local pool switched to salt water for some reason, and now I feel even worse about swimming in it.

    • temporaryerror says:

      @shadowplay:
      Saltwater? Why would they do that? Not to mention you would want to take a shower everytime you got out of the pool. Mebbe that’s why.

      • Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

        @temporaryerror: Saltwater systems have so little salt content, it’s basically no different than your own tears. It’s not just salt, it’s a chlorine GENERATOR, which has sterilizing properties. It’s easier to maintain, cheaper as well. Not for everyone of course, but it certainly should not be leaving an invisible layer of salt all over your body. I feel safer in a saltwater pool than an overly punked out chemical pool. Chemicals aren’t always a good thing, and are frequently done incorrectly.

    • Mary Marsala with Fries says:

      @shadowplay: My mother-in-law is a director for a statewide children’s program, so she knows all about the different pool systems and is HIGHLY in favor of the salt-based ones. I’ve taken my daughter to both, and the salt is certainly nicer on your skin/eyes/etc. than chlorine. According to mom-in-law, these systems are actually cleaner. I can’t explain why, but I trust her!

      • jessedybka says:

        @Mary Marsala with Fries: Saltwater pools ARE chlorine pools. They’re cleaner in part because they put out a constant low level of chlorine instead of the peaks and valleys of chlorine levels in other types of pools.

  19. balthisar says:

    Urine is sterile.

  20. temporaryscars says:

    I live in upstate NY too! Yay!

    Ok, that’s all I have.

    • nybiker says:

      @temporaryscars: Having lived in NYC all my life, I grew up thinking Pine Bush, NY was upstate NY. Why? Because that’s where my maternal grandparents had a summer home. I still remember the town’s community swimming pool (it was designed like a beach, so you could just wade in rather than jump in off the side). I have since learned Pine Bush is not really upstate NY.

    • Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

      @temporaryscars: Me too!

  21. unpolloloco says:

    I was a lifeguard for a few years – over the summer, it was surprising when we went for more than a week without a “fecal incident.” Usually, it was more like two or three. About 75% of incidents were from kids.

    Urine’s the least of concerns.

    • maztec says:

      @unpolloloco: Two or three a day .. the worst were the adults who had sex while the woman was on her period … and you saw a nice lil’ bloom of blood in the pool. Gah, I am glad I quit that job.

    • FLConsumer says:

      @unpolloloco: Obviously you’re from up north. Down in God’s Waiting Room, the elderly are the largest source of fecal spills in pools.

  22. PølάrβǽЯ says:

    “We don’t swim in your toilet, please don’t pee in our pool.”

  23. swedub says:

    I used to lifeguard in the early 90’s at public/high school pools during the school year and a private membership pool in the summer. Never once did I ever hear about someone getting sick from the water. I agree with the post from ‘HiPwr’, recreational water illnesses is right up there with restless leg syndrome. You probably have the same chance of getting sick from super markets, public transportation and any other location with multiple people gathering.

  24. maztec says:

    They really are doing this the wrong way.

    The signs need to be, “Nobody else pees in the pool, do you really want to be the only one?”

    Or, do like the lifeguard team I used to work on did at public pools, “Hey, kids, you know we have Urine-Indicator Dye in that pool? Yah, it turns your legs purple and doesn’t go away for a week. Oh yah, and if your legs are purple when you get out then we fine you $100!” All that despite: [en.wikipedia.org] . The fun thing about it was when we put a shill in the pool from time to time who had painted his/her legs ahead of time ;). Then making a big deal out of it when they get out of the pool and telling them to never come back. Parents loved it, kids got a kick out of it, and we know for a fact we probably had more pee in that pool as a result than we would have otherwise, but darnit, it was fun!

  25. SalmaDamrit says:

    This article seems dubious to me. For example: “behaviors that contribute to an unhealthy pool. Notably, one in five pee in the pool”

    As Tyler Durden once said… Urine is sterile. You can drink it.

    Sure peeing in the pool is a little disgusting and certainly rude, but it’s not “unhealthy”.

  26. veronykah says:

    Although the idea behind the article is good, after returning from a trip to Thailand recently I want to call BS on all kinds of articles like this.
    I spent 3 weeks in country with pretty lax, if any safety standards at all. Cloudy pools, food left out all day, no soap in bathrooms and guess what?
    I spent 3 weeks there and never once got sick! Even after swimming in questionable pools and eating food from street vendors.
    People there seem to be fine with going about their business all the while violating all kinds of health and safety violations, made me seriously think Americans are just PARANOID about everything.

  27. edwardso says:

    I don’t like to shower before I get in the pool because I’m wearing sunscreen and it only lasts so long after I start getting wet. The pool at my condo actually asks that people not wear sunscreen at all

  28. BuddhaLite says:

    There’s no way that a few ounces of urine can compete with the 2.5 gallons of liquid chlorine and chlorine tabs that go into my pool each week.

  29. ARPRINCE says:

    How about changing the poster to “DON’T URINATE IN THE DAMN POOL – FOOL!” ;)

  30. lannister80 says:

    My entire family (except me!) got chlamydia infections in their *eyes* from a swimming pool in Jamaica. Good times.

  31. richcreamerybutter says:

    Go to an Asian bathhouse…they are militant about washing thoroughly before entering any tubs.

  32. bluewyvern says:

    Beautiful photo.

    Accompanying text makes me stabby.

  33. lestat730 says:

    How bad can this really be when I swim in lakes all the time and never get sick. Not to mention that pools are full of chemicals to keep it clean.

  34. zekebullseye says:

    The thought of urine in the pool doesn’t gross me out as much as the nasty crotch sweat and vaginal secretions that get washed into the pool by ordinary swimming. And how about those people who don’t wipe their butt adequately after taking a dump? Guess where all those germs go?

    • FigNinja says:

      @zekebullseye:

      Yep. And babies in swim diapers. I don’t believe for a second that those keep stuff in. It’s not like the kid is hermetically sealed inside. I’m sure the poop leaks out.

  35. brodie7838 says:
  36. littlemisslondon says:

    What about the ocean, though? It’s FULL of microbes, fish poo, etc…

  37. mariospants says:

    Is it me or does the article “how-to-spot-a-contaminated-swimming-pool-and-why-you-should” not have any information about “how-to-spot-a-contaminated-swimming-pool” in it? Guess I’ll have to try the jump…

  38. Jabberkaty says:

    One of my most skin-crawly memories was going to an amusement/water park that had just been bought by a national chain (this is well over 10-15 years ago). It was bloody hot and crowded, everyone was in the waterpark side. I don’t know what capacity was, but it was probably over it.

    Beside the crushing mass of people, the gross thing was that I found out, the only way possible TO find out, that – ulp – the water was salty.

    Kind of took the fun out of the day.

  39. Sure I could agree with you, but then we'd BOTH be wrong. says:

    Welcome to our OOL.

    Notice there’s no P in it.

    Let’s keep it that way.

  40. medalian1 says:

    Man I’ve been peeing in the pool since forever and haven’t gotten sick. No sense in stopping now.

  41. yashichi8bit says:

    This is why I swim in rivers and lakes…not public pools or hot tubs.

  42. PaulSSS says:

    I think that putting a sign “DON’T URINATE IN THE DAMN POOL.” might actually be very effective – this way swimmers won’t so conveniently “forget” about the rule when they have the urge to go.
    Paul Swanson
    swimming pools co.