Healthy and Safe Swimming Week Provides Local Health Departments with Tools to Kick off Summer

Swimming_wavepoolSwimming season is here and all across the country people are donning bathing suits and sunscreen and flocking to community pools and beaches. However, summer fun is anything but if not done in a safe and well-maintained environment. Local health departments are charged with keeping their communities protected through public swimming venue inspections, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) awareness initiative provides them with the tools and resources to do so effectively.

May 18-24, 2015 marks the 11th annual Healthy and Safe Swimming Week. Formerly known as Recreational Water Illness and Injury Prevention Week, the initiative highlights ways in which swimmers, parents, pool owners and operators, beach managers, and public health professionals can maximize the health benefits of swimming while minimizing the risk of associated illness and injury. The 2015 theme, “Make a Healthy Splash: Share the Fun, Not the Germs,” focuses on easy and effective steps swimmers and parents can take to protect themselves, families, and friends from infectious pathogens in pools, water parks, hot tubs, spas, and water playgrounds.

The infectious pathogens that cause recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are spread by contact with contaminated water—which can sometimes be as minimal as breathing in mist—and they cause a variety of infections, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, and neurologic. The most common of these infections are Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, norovirus, and E.coli, usually spread when someone who has been sick with diarrhea swims in a public venue. Chemicals like chlorine and bromine can kill germs in the water, but they don’t work right away; and some germs, like Cryptosporidium, can live in treated pool water for several days. The best RWI prevention and preparedness steps are hygiene-related: shower before entering the water, stay out of the water if you are or have recently been sick with diarrhea, make sure to take kids on frequent bathroom breaks, change diapers away from the pool, and avoid swallowing the water. Local health departments should emphasize these simple steps when communicating swimming safety to their communities.

A number of resources support local health departments in their outreach and educational efforts regarding safe and healthy swimming.

Aquatic Venue Inspections

“Looking for Trouble—Seeing Eye to Eye with Health Inspectors” is a NACCHO report on U.S. aquatic venue inspections, findings, and recommendations. Produced in partnership with Axiall Corporation’s Water Treatment Products Group, the report details the comprehensive survey of aquatic health officials across the United States NACCHO conducted last year. It explored protocols and experiences in inspecting recreational water facilities and provides insights into commercial pool inspections, as well as recommendations on how pool operators can avoid violations and potential shutdowns.

Three hundred local health departments participated in the survey; notable results identify the types of aquatic venues with the highest turnover rates and the highest number of violations. Particularly illuminating findings show that:

  • 75% of responding local health departments reported a commercial pool shutdown within the past two years;
  • 32% of respondents reported always finding violations in apartment complexes; and
  • 36% reported that hotel/motels have the most water quality violations.

The report also includes a number of recommendations for keeping track of chemical issues, ensuring equipment maintenance, staying informed with new codes such as the Model Aquatic Health Code, and generally performing successful inspections.

Because local health departments are typically tasked with enforcing aquatic facility ordinances, officials are key in proactively providing water quality guidance and education to pool owners and operators, and ensuring all community partners are in compliance. Further, health department expertise can be helpful to those facilities that see higher employee turnover, such as hotels, motels, and apartment complexes. Health officials, in conjunction with pool operators, can use the “Looking for Trouble” report to help educate the general public on safe and hygienic swimming practices, not just as part of Safe and Healthy Swimming Week but throughout the entire swimming season.

Model Aquatic Health Code

Despite the more than 300 million visits made yearly to swimming venues in the United States, there is no federal regulatory agency responsible for aquatic facilities; codes are developed, reviewed, and approved at the state or local level. As a result, there are no uniform, national standards governing the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of pools, spas, water parks, and other treated aquatic facilities. Thus, there are considerable variations in requirements for preventing and responding to RWIs, injuries, and drownings across the country.

To address these issues, CDC has led a collaborative effort with public health, industry, and academic partners across the United States to develop the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), a national guidance to prevent drownings, injuries, and the spread of RWIs at public swimming venues. Local and state agencies needing to update or implement swimming pool and spa codes can use the MAHC as a resource to improve health and safety while conserving the time and resources previously needed. The voluntary guidance document is based on research into the science of water safety, as well as best practices. CDC released the first version of the MAHC August 2014, just as swimming season was coming to a close.

Adoption of MAHC guidance is anticipated to have a number of outcomes, including to:

  • Prevent injuries, pathogen transmission, outbreaks, and associated costs
  • Reduce pool code violations and closures
  • Drive code standardization and uniformity
  • Promote incorporation of science-based practices into pool programs
  • Facilitate adoption of a systems-based, risk reduction approach to pool design and operation
  • Collect data to support effectiveness of pool programs and to prevent elimination
  • Decrease resources expended in creating and updating pool codes

The Conference for the Model Aquatic Health Code serves as a national clearinghouse for input and advice needed to improve the MAHC. Public health officials who are interested in sharing opinions on the national guidance are encouraged to join the organization and attend the first biennial conference Oct. 6-7 in Phoenix. The conference goal is to gather, assess, and relay MAHC updates to CDC.

For more information on Safe and Healthy Swimming Week, and other aquatic venue resources, view the following webpages:

About Katie Regan

Katie Regan serves as the Communications Specialist for Environmental Health, Pandemic Preparedness, and Catastrophic Response at NACCHO. Her work includes promoting local health departments' best practices through NACCHO's various storytelling and communications channels. Twitter: @katiejregan

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