By Jim McCloskey
The news wasn’t great for public pools, hot tubs and waterparks in the days leading up to Memorial Day and the start of the 2016 swimming season: In five big states (Florida, New York, Texas, Arizona and California), a series of aquatic-facility inspections by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found widespread violations and in some cases closed facilities pending remedial action.
News of these inspections went viral on the web, with grim headlines leading to stories indicating that CDC had checked in on 50,000 aquatic facilities in those five states. Four out of five facilities – 80 percent – had at least one water treatment or safety violation to address, while one in eight (12.5 percent) were advised to close immediately. This is no way to rev up public enthusiasm about a hot summer season to come, but I'm not letting it get me down.
Then there was the study out of the University of South Carolina (USC) confirming previous observations that the disinfection byproducts that result from common chemical treatment of swimming pools can cause asthma and, more alarmingly, bladder cancer – and that, in new findings, those byproducts also can affect DNA in ways that can increase levels of genetic mutation.
Reports I’ve seen on the USC study haven’t been specific about what that might mean, but on its face this is neither reassuring nor encouraging to the people who use or might be inclined to use public aquatic facilities on a regular basis this summer. How many parents, you have to wonder, will be able to bring themselves to see the water in these facilities as completely safe? It was tough, but again, I'm not letting it get me down.
For its part, CDC seems oddly upbeat, using the heap of off-putting information as a season-opening opportunity to remind people to be careful and take showers and avoid swallowing water or even letting it enter your mouth. They also suggested that staying out of the water if one is experiencing diarrhea would not be a bad idea -- one I will readily endorse. But in no way did I get the sense CDC was suggesting that anyone had to stay away.
The USC study team was quite matter-of-fact about its observations, presenting them without any sort of judgment or alarm that I could perceive. This may be because the study broke new ground by identifying disinfection byproducts in a systematic way; it may also be because the research is so preliminary that sound scientific methodology wouldn’t allow them to push any agenda.
In reviewing all of this information – and rolling with the brisk one-two punch these reports represent – I couldn’t help reflecting on my own long relationship with public pools, hot tubs and waterparks (not to mention fountains, rivers, oceans, lakes and streams) and wondering how the heck I ever managed to survive the frequent, prolonged opportunities I took to immerse myself in water alongside other filthy human beings.
In all of those adventures – some of which were doubtless risky under terms set forth by CDC and the folks at USC – I can recall only one negative experience in which a dip at a pool in my sister’s apartment complex when I was 16 resulted in a rash that took a week or so of treatment to go away. This was a Monday experience in cloudy water after a hot weekend, and I’ve always attributed it more to bad timing and a youthful refusal to be denied a good swim than anything else.
I don’t want to downplay the significance of the CDC and USC reports in any way – all pools, hot tubs and waterparks should observe the highest standards when it comes to safety, water quality and treatment, and I encourage researchers to continue looking into all of the eventualities that come from exposure to all forms of watershapes, from birdbaths to lakes. But I have to think that the water is just a bit safer than these reports would lead the average person to believe and that we swimmers and soakers are a lot more resilient than we’re credited with being.
To be sure, I may stop letting the water of these watershapes get into my mouth – something CDC suggests is wise to do – but I’m also aware that hundreds if not thousands of gallons of it have already passed through that sensitive cavity in my lifetime, and I can’t begin to calculate how much managed to get past my tonsils through the years. Somehow, I have lived to tell the tale with just one annoying incident to report.
I also have to think that maintenance standards today are much more sophisticated and that aquatic facilities are much more rigorously monitored in 2016 than they were back in 1960, when I took my first dip in the pool at Lincoln Junior High. Huge bather loads, lots of young children: A deadly stew? Far from it, I’d say.
So enough of the flashing, red-letter pronouncements: Let’s all apply a little common sense, get in the water and have fun!