We've all seen the quirky, tongue-in-cheek signs, usually hanging outside the pool of a friend or neighbor: "We don't swim in your toilet. Don't pee in our pool."
But a recent survey shows that many people still don't take admonishments like these seriously, and practice some other distressing bathing habits as well. Last month, the Water Quality and Health Council, a body of experts that serves as advisers to the Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council, released a survey showing that one in five people polled admitted to urinating in a swimming pool. In the same survey, about 68 percent of those polled confessed that they do not always shower before getting in the pool. Council chairman Chris Wiant said, though it's fairly easy for swimmers to protect themselves and fellow bathers against water-related health threats, some people just don't practice good pool hygiene.
"Taking a shower before swimming isn't that big a deal," he said. "It's actually kind of a prudent thing to do."
The survey was conducted in April among 1,000 American adults over 18. Locally, health professionals and recreation officials said the results aren't terribly surprising, but that this kind of behavior can carry serious health risks for pool lovers.
"You might see a sign at the public pool saying `Please shower before you go in the pool,' and think `Who does that?' But you really should do that," said Dr. Zane Saul, chief of infectious diseases at Bridgeport Hospital.
That's because sweat from unshowered swimmers can combine with pool chlorine and, yes, urine, to create chloramine, a "toxic fume" that Saul said causes the eye irritation many associate with swimming in chlorinated pools.
Other effects of chloramine include sore throat.
Sweat isn't the only thing lurking on our bodies that should be washed off before a swim, said Pamela Scully, sanitary engineer with Connecticut Department of Public Health. Perfume, makeup, sunscreen and any other substance we apply to our skin need to be scrubbed off as well.
"All that adds to the water chemistry and blocks how the chlorine works," she said. "A pool shouldn't be used as a bath."
The state department of public health requires that pools be disinfected using a chemical feeder. The regulations require that pools conduct daily tests before opening, measuring the pool's pH balance and disinfectant levels. The tests are supposed to be repeated at "sufficient frequency during periods of bather use." Wiant said a highly populated pool should be tested hourly.
Scully said the state recommends it be tested at least three times a day. According to state regulations, the chlorine levels in most pools should be no lower than .8 milligrams per liter of water. There are also strict protocols about what should happen if pools are contaminated with fecal matter, vomit, blood or dead animals. In most of these instances, the pool is supposed to be closed until the area is cleaned and disinfected. These closures don't have to be reported to the state, so there are no statewide statistics.
Lynn Gabriel, senior program director of the Bridgeport YMCA, said the Y's pool adheres to state guidelines and staff are as vigilant as possible about encouraging swimmers to exercise good pool hygiene. Signs are posted throughout the pool area advised people to shower before swimming, Gabriel said. But sometimes, a little extra persuasion is needed, particularly when it comes to encouraging parents to have their kids wash off before plunging into the pool.
"We try to educate parents on why they have to have their kids shower, and that it's not because we think their children aren't clean," Gabriel said.
Ann Marie Boehlert, aquatics director for the Shelton Community Center, said the staff at the center's pool also try to prevent what she euphemistically calls "organic material" from entering the pool, but it's harder than it used to be. "Once upon a time you had people who were attendants in the locker room," who could make sure bathers showered, Boehlert said. Even so, she said the pool staff generally does a good job on getting people showered.
She and Gabriel also said there's a push to get people to use the bathroom before taking a dip, particularly young kids. Even so, accidents happen, Boehlert said. "Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do about people urinating in the pool," she said.
So, even if you practice unimpeachable swimming etiquette, how do you protect yourself from waterborne illness? Common sense, Saul said. Swimmers should wear goggles in the pool, he said. And, of course, try not to swallow what you're swimming in. "Pool water is not meant for drinking," Scully said.
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