Public Pool Safety: Are Public Pools Clean Or Filled With Germs?

As the weather gets warmer, many of us will be hitting the public pool to cool off. But before you take the plunge, you may want to consider the safety of swimming in a public pool. Public pools have gotten a bad rap recently, and a 2008 CDC report on recreational water illnesses didn’t help. So, are there any clean and safe public pools out there?

Unfortunately, most public pools aren’t as clean as they should be. A major CDC study found that 79% of public pool routine inspections failed at least one code violation. You can take your own pool test strips along to confirm a pool is safe before jumping in.

That means there’s a good chance that the public pool you’re swimming in isn’t up to cleanliness standards. And even if the pool is clean, there’s no guarantee it will stay that way. With so many people using public pools, keeping them germ-free is nearly impossible. Let’s look at how public pools are regulated and how you can ensure you’re swimming in a clean and safe pool this summer.

How Sanitary Is a Public Pool?

Metal hand railing of staircase to public swimming pool

Public pools have always been at the center of a hot debate regarding hygiene measures. The concerns became more widespread after the CDC released the biggest ever study on pool water in 2008.

They did a quality test on more than 120,000 public pools across the United States and found that one in eight was so unsafe and dirty that it needed to be shut down immediately.

This study found that there were several issues with public pools, including:

  • Poor water quality
  • Unsafe pH levels
  • Lack of chlorine or other disinfectants
  • High levels of bacteria and germs

The nature of public pools makes them more likely to harbor germs and bacteria. Especially when you factor in the fact that most people don’t shower before getting into the pool. In fact, in a survey, 1 in 5 adult Americans admit to peeing in the pool.

All these factors lead to disease spread through public pools. Hundreds of thousands of people get sick from swimming in contaminated water every year. The most common illness is diarrhea, caused by E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and Giardia.

So yes, public pools can be pretty unsanitary places. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any clean and safe public pools! A tightly regulated pool that is properly maintained can be a clean and safe place to swim. You just have to be aware and take precautions before going for a dip.

Can You Get Sick From Swimming in a Public Pool?

The simple answer is yes, you can get sick from swimming in a public pool. Lots of common diseases and infections can spread through contaminated pool water, including:

  • E. coli is a bacteria that can cause severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting.
  • Cryptosporidium is a highly resistant parasite that causes watery diarrhea. Crypto can withstand chlorine for days, and swallowing just a few drops of contaminated water can make you sick.
  • Giardia is another parasite that causes diarrhea, cramps, bloating, and gas.
  • Norovirus is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis, or “stomach flu.” Norovirus can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
  • Shigella is a highly contagious bacteria. It causes Shigellosis, an intestinal infection that leads to bloody diarrhea.
  • Pseudomonas Aeruginosa is the bacterium that causes hot tub rash. It can also cause swimmer’s ear and skin infections.
  • Legionella is a bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia. It enters the body when you inhale contaminated water droplets.

Other than these, some rare but serious diseases like Hepatitis A and tuberculosis can also spread through contaminated water.

The above diseases are classified as Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs). The CDC estimated that 15 to 20 RWI outbreaks happen each year, resulting in more than 200,000 people getting sick, some with serious health consequences like hospitalization and even death.

How Can You Stay Safe in a Public Pool?

Panoramic view of idyllic public swimming pool in Lech am Arlberg

Public pools are obviously not the safest places to swim. But the responsibility to keep public pools clean and safe doesn’t solely lie with the pool operators. There are some things you can do to protect yourself and your family when swimming in a public pool:

Check Chlorine Levels

Chlorine is the most common disinfectant used in public pools. The CDC recommends that public pools maintain a chlorine level of 1-3ppm (parts per million).

It’s highly advised to test the chlorine levels yourself before getting into the pool. You can buy cheap pool testing strips (on Amazon) online or from your local pool supply store.

Check pH Levels

The ideal pH level for swimming pools is 7.2-7.8. A pool with pH levels outside this range can irritate your eyes and skin. The same pool testing strips can also be used to test the pH levels of pool water.

Look for Proper Pool Maintenance

A quick look around the pool area can tell you a lot about the cleanliness of the pool. Are the deck and pool area clean? Is the water cloudy or murky?

Are there any strong chemical odors? These are all red flags that the pool is not being properly maintained. If you see any of these warning signs, it’s best to find another place to swim.

Check Official Pool Inspection Results

Many states and localities require public pools to be inspected by health officials. These inspection results are usually posted in a visible place near the pool. If you can’t find the inspection results, ask a pool staff member.

Don’t Swim With Open Wounds

Cuts or scrapes on your skin can provide an entry point for bacteria and other contaminants. If you have such wounds, it’s best to avoid swimming in public pools altogether.

Don’t Swallow Pool Water

Swallowing just a small amount of contaminated pool water can make you sick. Avoid swallowing pool water, even if it looks clean.

Avoid the Pool if You’re Sick

If you have any intestinal illness, it’s best to stay out of the pool. You don’t want to risk contaminating the water and making other people sick. Plus, a weak immune system can make it harder for your body to fight off infections you come across in pools.

Dry Your Ears After Swimming

Water trapped in your ear can lead to an infection. To prevent this, use a soft towel to dry your ears after swimming. You can also use ear drops to help keep your ears dry.

Prep Your Kids Before They Swim

If you have young children, teach them not to swallow pool water. Take them for frequent restroom breaks. And make sure they know to tell you if they have any cuts or scrapes.

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