Disinfection Discourse

Eric Herman Headshot

Eric HermanAs we know, water, for all of its essential nature, is one of the most efficacious ways of spreading disease when left untreated or not properly treated. We also know that for just about a century now, pools as well as public water utilities have relied primarily on chlorine to do the job of killing waterborne pathogens that cause illness. Taken in whole, we can safely say chlorine and in recent decades, bromine, have done a spectacular job, so much so that most of us take safe drinking water and safe water for swimming and bathing as a given.

That said, it should be equally apparent that presumption comes with some big caveats. According to a recent information bulletin from the Centers For Disease Control: “Contrary to popular belief, chlorine does not kill all germs instantly. There are germs today that are very tolerant to chlorine and were not known to cause human disease until recently. Once these germs get in the pool, it can take anywhere from minutes to days for chlorine to kill them. Swallowing just a little water that contains these germs can make you sick.”

The bulletin further stated: “Recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are caused by germs spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers, or oceans. RWIs can also be caused by chemicals in the water or chemicals that evaporate from the water and cause indoor air quality problems.”

That bulletin touched a sensitive nerve with Steve Kenny, owner of SRK Pool Services, a service and builder firm located in Wainscott, New York. Steve got in touch recently to share his experience with a YMCA pool in his community that appears to be suffering from the exact issues cited by the CDC. 

Apparently, his children have been using the indoor pool at the Y and became ill with asthma-like symptoms and extreme diarrhea, the latter of which became so severe that he and his wife had to take their daughter to the emergency room. In speaking with other parents whose children use the facility, he ran into case after case of families suffering the same problems. The pool was also used by a swim team of once-healthy young athletes who were forced to use inhalers to combat asthma symptoms.

Despite his repeated attempts to prompt the YMCA and local health officials to study the problem, he’s run into resistance based on the fact that there has never been a firm, established link between the pool and the symptoms his and other kids are experiencing. “A huge part of the problem is that it can be difficult to determine exactly where people came in contact with the pathogens,” he explains. “And as a result, many of these problems are misdiagnosed. 

“There’s a mistaken assumption that many people make that because water is clear, it’s safe," Kenny says. "In fact, I’ve heard many people defend water on the basis that it smells like chlorine and they therefore assume that the water is being properly sanitized. They don’t realize that the chlorine smell is caused by chloramines, not free available chlorine.” 

In the case of the Y pool Kenny believes is causing these widespread problems, the Y officials have defended their pool while at the same time noting there are measures they could take to improve water and air quality in the facility. In a December 27 edition of The East Hampton Star, facility director Juan Castro allowed, “This pool and facility is heavily used, and at the level we’re experiencing now, we may have to add a secondary system to help with the air quality. It occurs with significant bather-load increases.”?    

Yet the pool’s water quality poses no health hazard, Mr. Castro insisted. The Suffolk County Department of Health has visited twice in the last month, he said, but it does not test the air quality. “They check water-quality procedures. They also responded to the fact that there may be some air-quality issues, but we meet the standards of the Health Department.” 

According to Kenny, this represents a disconnect between treatment standards and the reality that the 1 to 3 parts per million chlorine residual falls short in situations where bather load is heavy. Among other issues, he points to a CDC report citing that incidents of cryptosporidium outbreaks more than doubled in the U.S. between 2004 and 2008. 

“We’ve known for a long time that it takes days for chlorine to kill ‘crypto,’” Kenny explained. “We also know that chloramines in water can lead to asthma-like symptoms, especially in indoor pools. Those are just a couple of reasons why I believe the pool industry needs to get out in front of this issue and look to secondary sanitizing methods as a way to improve water quality.

“The good news is we already have the tools we need to address these issues.”

Again turning the CDC, the agency's Model Aquatic Health Code recommends the use of ozone and UV sterilization as ways to augment water treatment to prevent disease outbreaks, alongside chlorine or bromine, as well as proper maintenance of water balance. 

The CDC also recommends bathers take commonsense measures such as showering and cleaning prior to swimming and avoiding swallowing pool water. “All good recommendations,” Kenny allows, “but we know that there are going to be people who don’t practice good hygiene, and, realistically how can anyone completely avoid swallowing water when they’re swimming? 

“Bottom line is we need more reliable solutions, and I believe that means secondary sanitizing methods.” 

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