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Health district campaign promotes pool safety

Even with lifeguards, crowded pools, such as the Shadle Aquatic Center, requires vigilant supervision from adults. (Dan Pelle)
Even with lifeguards, crowded pools, such as the Shadle Aquatic Center, requires vigilant supervision from adults. (Dan Pelle)

The Spokane Regional Health District is preaching pool safety this summer, tackling both drowning and recreational water illnesses with its Pool Safe campaign.

“We want to make sure that the public is aware of their roles and responsibilities to keep these water recreation facilities … safe for use,” said Steve Main, a technical adviser for the Living Environment Program, which includes water recreation program.

The health district’s campaign is aimed at both public and private pools.

The top message: “We all share in the responsibility to protect the health and safety of the people who visit these pools,” Main said.

It’s a common misconception, Main said, that the pool operator is solely responsible for keeping the pool environment safe and healthy. That if they would just keep the chlorine levels right, just take this measure or that measure, all would be well.

“But there are some simple measures that the swimmers themselves can take to protect everyone in the pool,” he said.

Drownings

To prevent drownings, the most important thing is “that the parents need to actively watch their children,” said Trisha McClure, an environmental health specialist with the health district.

“It only takes a matter of seconds for them to go into the water and drown,” she said.

“Drowning itself is actually very swift and it’s very silent,” Main said. “There is no splashing, no yelling, no one waving their arms trying to get someone to help them.”

When you watch a drowning, he said, “It looks like the person is actually playing in the water.”

“Supervision is very key, and the person supervising … has to be very vigilant, make sure that their eyes are always on the person that’s in the water.”

Not casually watching while checking email or entertaining guests.

In 2013, nine people drowned in Spokane County, according to health district numbers. That year there were 19 inpatient hospitalizations for non-fatal injury from submersion. Preschool age children were at the greatest risk for near drowning, according to health district data.

McClure works with American Medical Response to get information about drownings and near drownings.

“A lot of times they are the 2- to 3-year-old children that are not supervised in the backyard,” she said.

To help keep children from getting into the water unsupervised, there are steps families with pools can take, McClure said, including four-sided fencing around the pool, alarms (for pool, patio doors or both), and pool covers.

Even at pools with lifeguards, adults have to be vigilant.

“It’s really important for the parent … to be actively involved in supervising the child in the water,” Main said.

That means adults should stay within arm’s reach of their child.

Other tips for staying safe in the water:

• Use a buddy system, especially when swimming without a lifeguard.

• Never get in a pool with murky water – make sure you can see the main drain on the pool’s bottom.

• Weak swimmers should use a Coast Guard-approved life jacket.

But don’t count on water wings or noodles – those are just toys, McClure said.

And, “Even when the child is in a life jacket, they should still be supervised,” Main said.

Recreational water illnesses

Beyond keeping swimmers alive, the health district also wants to keep swimmers healthy.

“One of the key messages that we want to get out to the public is that even in well-maintained swimming pools … chlorine does not kill the germs that get into the pool instantly,” Main said.

And there are a lot of contaminants in pools – most of them brought in by swimmers, including sweat, spit, urine and fecal material. (The average adult has 0.14 grams of poop on their bottom, a toddler as much as 10 grams.)

“It may take up to 30 minutes, and, if you’re talking about diarrhea … it may take over five days” for the pool chemicals to kill germs, Main said.

So the health district is educating swimmers on how they can help keep pools clean.

“We want to keep all those contaminants out of the pool as much as possible,” Main said.

The district is stressing four steps to keep pools clean:

• Shower, with soap, to remove any contaminants.

• Stay out of the pool if you’re sick or have been sick with diarrhea recently.

Swimmers can still shed the germs that cause the illness for up to two weeks after the symptoms stop, Main said. Whether it’s a virus, bacteria, parasite, “their body is dealing with something, and we just don’t want that introduced to the pool,” he said.

• Use a toilet, not the pool.

Take breaks every 30 to 60 minutes to use the toilet, change swim diapers and rehydrate.

Speaking of swim diapers, they’re only made to keep the solids in, Main said. Otherwise, think of them more like a tea bag: “None of them are designed to keep bacteria, viruses and parasites enclosed,” he said. That stuff filters out into the pool.

Also, use designated areas to change diapers to keep contaminants away from the pool.

• Don’t drink the water.

The average adult swallows 1 tablespoon of pool water while swimming 45 minutes. For children, it’s about 2 ½ tablespoons. So, one easy way to prevent illness is keep the pool water out of your mouth, Main said.

“Don’t get it in your mouth and play little games where you’re spitting it out and things like that, it’s just not a safe thing to do,” he said.

And that strong chlorine smell? That doesn’t mean the water is clean. In fact, much the opposite: That smell is chloramines, which are created when chlorine binds to sweat, urine, fecal material and other contaminants. Pools with a heavy smell should be avoided, Main said.

“Chloramines do not disinfect at all, they are an irritant to the swimmer,” he said.

They can irritate eyes, nose, throat, and cause you to cough, he said. “It’s just not a healthy environment.”

“When water is not properly treated, anything that’s in the fecal material could potentially be transmitted to the swimmers,” he said.

“The point I guess of the message … is that this is all completely preventable.”

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