The poop on pools (and beaches)

Swim safely this summer


Lenna Silberman Scott


Stephanie Lerner-Ernsteen is a Deerfield mother of four  with a backyard pool. She follows all of the swimming safety recommendations, including having a fence with a lock, accessible rescue equipment, supervised swimming and swimming lessons for her children, ages 6 through 12. But none of that was enough to stop her 6-year-old daughter and a friend from unlocking the gate surrounding the pool to look at the water.

“The kids came running in the house screaming. They were just looking at the pool and the friend fell in. She was holding onto the side the whole time, but it could have been bad,” Lerner-Ernsteen says. “I would have never thought my kids would get anywhere near that pool without an adult. They all knew the rules.”

Luckily, the child was able to stand in the shallow water and walk out of the pool. Lerner-Ernsteen was merely embarrassed when she had to call the child’s mom and admit to nothing more serious than some wet clothing. Nevertheless, the incident left her shaken.

And for good reason. While drowning rates have slowly declined, drowning remains the second leading cause of injury-related death for kids ages 1 to 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

But drowning is not the only swimming-related risk. When hitting the beach or pool deck this summer, parents also need to guard against swimmer’s ear, water germs, dehydration and sunburn, among other things, say swimming and health experts. To keep swimming safe—and fun—parents need to take certain precautions, they say.

Learn to swim

Drownings and near drownings are a real risk. Headlines were made last year when a church trip in Texas turned to tragedy. An 8-year-old from south suburban Richton Park drowned after she fell into a sculpture fountain pool at a park in Fort Worth, Texas. Two more children and an adult who jumped in to rescue her also drowned.

CDC studies also show that for every child who drowns each year, three more head to the emergency room for treatment of injuries sustained in water accidents—including brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities. In the last five years, 41 people drowned or nearly drowned in Illinois.

“The best thing that anyone can do to stay safe in, on or around water is to learn to swim,” says Chris Shanahan, the director of community health and safety for the Illinois Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross. “It’s equally important, if not more so, that a parent knows how to swim.”

The Red Cross says you can teach a child as young as 6 months old to swim. “They understand the reflex to hold their breath when they go under water,” Shanahan says.

“But even once they are able to swim,” Shanahan adds, “never leave a child unattended who may gain access to water. Teach your kids not to go near water without you. Just like you don’t cross the street without holding an adult’s hand, you don’t go near water without adult supervision.”

Lerner-Ernsteen has been driving that message home.

“After [the incident] I warned them about how dangerous it was, and that it was such a serious thing that they had done. Each season I will make sure we reiterate the rules,” she says. “Even though our pool was open, we hadn’t been swimming. You think the kids know the rules, but you need to repeat them and with each friend that is over repeat them and make sure they know the rules, too.”

Beat water-borne bugs

But knowing how to swim doesn’t protect you from all the dangers in the water. We already know that thousands of Chicago-area kids will go to pools, beaches and water parks this summer. Water is just  a part of summer whether it is the local park districts pools from Wheeling to Wheaton or the fancier water park pools from Highland Park to Hanover Park. (Six Flags Hurricane Harbor Water Park is the newest and largest of these summer water playgrounds, see review page 11.) While the majority are well-maintained and clean, public facilities represent increased health risks.

According to CDC records, in 2002, bacteria and germs caused swimming-related illnesses in an estimated 2,536 persons in 23 states; 61 were hospitalized and eight died.

And this may be only the tip of the iceberg, some experts say.

“We don’t think it tells the whole story. We think it only picks up a fraction of what is out there,” says Dr. Michael Beach, a CDC epidemiologist.

Reports range from diarrhea to skin rashes, eye and wound infections to respiratory problems.

“The main recommendation provided for disease prevention is to avoid drinking pool water,” says Jennifer Williams from the Illinois Department of Public Health. “Showering before and after swimming, practicing good hygiene after using the bathroom or changing diapers all help disease prevention.”

Carolyn Murray, a mother of three teenagers, is the swim lesson coordinator for the Oswegoland Park District. As a mom, she knows it can be hard to get kids to leave the pool to use the bathroom. She also says swim diapers give parents a false sense of security.

“Swim diapers don’t really contain—they’re good for a little while,” Murray says. “We’ve put in place a policy where every child has to wear rubber pants if they are in swim diapers. You can’t help accidents but you can try to control it.”

The Oswegoland Park District also is instituting a five-minute rest every hour so kids can take a break and go to the restroom. “Kids don’t always want to stop playing to use the bathroom,” Murray says. “It enforces it a little bit without having to make it their own decision.”

Both Williams and Beach emphasize people who have had diarrhea recently should not swim.

“If we want to keep our swimming pools clean from bacteria, we cannot go swimming when we or our children have diarrhea,” Beach says.

The same is true for swimmers with a rash or open cut of any kind. Not only can you contaminate the water, but bacteria in the water can enter the cut, leading to infection or illness. “We would recommend that you wait to enter the water until that heals,” Beach says.

Beach emphasizes the CDC is not trying to discourage swimming. He cites the benefits of swimming as a form of exercise.

“We’re not interested in decreasing the amount of healthy swimmers, we just want to see that healthy swimming behaviors are being implemented,” Beach says.

Beach basics

It is also important to use good judgment when choosing where to swim. In past summers, numerous Lake Michigan beaches have been closed because of unsafe levels of harmful bacteria. Smaller beaches also may have health issues, but may not receive the same level of scrutiny.

“Beachgoers should look for cleanliness of the beach area. Is there trash or debris on the beach? Are there waterfowl residing on the beach?” Williams says. “Bird waste can cause high bacteria levels in the water. Also, look for movement in the water—it helps keep the water clean. Stagnant or still water can be a sign of possible bacteria.

“Ask the beach operator for recent water sampling results,” Williams adds.

Especially after a heavy rain, runoff can result in a high bacteria count and increase the possibility of infection or illness. The Illinois Department of Public Health licenses beaches for public swimming—each beach should display a current license. Larger beaches, such as those that surround Lake Michigan, are monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Check your beach at Pool pointers Pools have similar health concerns. The Illinois Department of Public Health licenses swimming pools, spas and water parks in Illinois. Williams recommends asking if the facility’s license is current. Also, look for obvious signs of cleanliness, such as clear water and drains. There shouldn’t be a strong chlorine odor. “That chemical smell is not the chlorine, it is a byproduct of the chlorine binding with debris, like urine, in the water,” Beach says. “When you feel the side of the pool and it feels kind of scummy, that’s a bacterial growth.” Both the CDC and the Illinois Department of Public Health recommend showering before and after using the pool. Beach says people may think it is gross, but “pool water is communal bathing water.” And sharing water can mean sharing germs—and infections. Swimmer’s ear (an ear infection caused by too much moisture in the ear) and swimmer’s itch (a skin rash caused by an allergic reaction to parasites in the water), along with diarrheal illnesses, are the most common outbreaks reported to the CDC. Heidi Krug-Myers of Buffalo Grove learned about swimmer’s ear during a family vacation to Marco Island, Fla., in 2003. Her daughter, Sydney, then 6, woke up in the middle of the night in agony. “She was absolutely screaming. She’s had ear infections before but never with that level of pain,” Krug-Myers says. “It became very clear that there was really something wrong.” Krug-Myers took Sydney to an urgent care facility where doctors diagnosed her with swimmer’s ear, which occurs when bacteria gets trapped in the ear after swimming. The bacteria can cause the ear to itch or become red and inflamed. Just moving the head or touching the ear can be extremely painful. There may also be pus draining from the ear. Swimmer’s ear usually surfaces a few days after the bacteria becomes trapped. Sydney’s doctors prescribed pain medication and antibiotics. Another concern is swimmer’s itch, a skin rash caused by an allergic reaction to infection with certain parasites of birds and mammals. Swimmer’s itch is most often contracted in lakes and ponds—but not always. And these rashes and infections are not limited to kids. Susie Sokol, a Buffalo Grove mother of two, discovered that last year after visiting an indoor water park in Wisconsin. “It was disgusting—raised, red, itchy bumps on my wrists, elbows and knees,” Sokol says. “It came the day after I swam.” A doctor prescribed a steroid cream for the rash. There are ways to prevent these infections. “Those are maintenance issues,” Beach says. “They’re caused by bacteria that are out there in the environment. Clear that water out of your ear after swimming, bacteria will tend to grow if you don’t clean it out. Take a shower after swimming.” Dangerous too’s Finally, there are the health risks from what the American Red Cross calls the “dangerous too’s.” And these require constant parental diligence Shanahan says. “Too tired, too cold, too far from safety, too much sun, too much strenuous activity—the definition of those is going to be different for each child,” says Shanahan. “If it’s too cold, they’re going to be shivering or blue; too much sun, they are going to be sunburned. You’re going to know your child.” Regularly apply sunscreen with a sun protection formula (SPF) of at least 15 and reapply after swimming, showering or sweating to protect kids’ skin from sunburn and reduce the risk of skin cancer. (For more sun tips, see page 39.) The American Academy of Pediatrics also reminds parents that hydration is important, especially when a pool or a beach, because people may not feel thirsty. During activity, the academy recommends drinking liquids every 20 minutes. 


Lenna Silberman Scott is a freelance writer living in Buffalo Grove with her husband and two children, ages 3 and 6.

It is always important to focus on the basics when it comes to water safety. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Red Cross, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Home Safety Council all agree on some of the basics:

Learn to swim. According to Chris Shanahan of the Illinois Capital Area Chapter of the Red Cross, teaching kids and adults who supervise kids how to swim reduces drownings and near-drownings.

Swim only in supervised areas. At a minimum, assign someone outside the water to watch swimmers. “Whenever young children are in the pool, practice touch supervision, where you are close enough to put a hand on a small child,” says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council.

Have rescue equipment nearby. “Reach or throw, don’t go” is the Red Cross slogan. Have something you can use to reach out to someone struggling in the water and keep an approved life ring nearby. Only as a last resort should you enter the water to rescue someone. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends keeping a telephone handy whenever children are swimming to make it easy to call for help.

Only use Coast Guard-approved life jackets. “Inflatables such as water rings, swim rings and other floatation devices are not designed to be used as substitutes for U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets or life vests or adult supervision,” Shanahan says. “They pop, they loose air, they slide off the arm. Swimmers may go beyond their ability and fall off their inflatable, which may lead to a drowning situation.”

Be aware of water depth, currents and other hazards. Shanahan says parents must ask: ”Is the water deeper than the kids are going to be able to stand? Is the current so strong that it is going to be able to pull them from shallow water? What’s the visibility of the water—is it clear?” Injuries can occur when swimmers are unprepared.

Use common sense. The experts all agree: Don’t mix alcohol and swimming—ever. Obey the rules of the swimming area. Always supervise swimming children. Don’t leave, even for a minute.

“There is a very common misconception that drowning is very noisy, flailing arms, etc. Often it is very sudden and quiet,” Appy says. —Lenna Silberman Scott


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