Fladun / Floating horrors of the public pool

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WE spent much of a holiday afternoon at one of Canberra’s public pools.

Our boy and girl swam and contentedly splashed while their parents sat poolside, working on their laptops, browsing social media and drinking coffee.

Sonya Fladun.
Sonya Fladun.
Suddenly, however, there was a flurry of activity. The lifeguards were peering intently into the water. One raced off and returned carrying a net on a long pole. He waded in and attempted to scoop up something that appeared to have spread widely in the crowded pool.

Our kids emerged from the water to report that another child had vomited copiously into the pool.

“There were lots of chunky bits,” my 12-year-old son told us.

“I could see bits of carrot, it went everywhere,” his eight-year-old sister  added while pulling a face at the horror of it all.

This didn’t come as a great surprise. However, what did surprise me was the response of the pool staff. After ineffectually trying to scoop up some of the semi-solid material, they quickly gave up and contented themselves with noting the details on an incident report form that they locked away in the swimming centre office.

What they didn’t do was clear everyone out of the pool.

It took me only a few minutes to confirm that’s what needed to be done. Thanks to the internet I was able to quickly check the ACT Government’s code of practice for public pools and the relevant NSW health guidelines. For good measure I also read the US Centre for Disease Control’s comprehensive guidance on how to deal with vomit and faecal “incidents” at swimming pools.

There’s no shortage of advice about what to do, and it’s all pretty consistent: everyone should leave the pool and it should remain closed until the chlorine and filtration cycle has dealt with the problem.

Contrary to popular belief, chlorine doesn’t kill all germs and parasites instantly. Some are very tolerant to chlorine and it takes time to kill them. Depending on the nature of the incident and the level of chlorination, this can vary from 20 minutes to an hour for a serious case of vomiting or what the CDC describes as a “formed stool incident”; to a full day for a case of diarrhoea in the pool.

The health risk is significant as giardia or cryptosporidium parasites can cause serious gastrointestinal illnesses. There was a significant crypto outbreak linked to several Canberra public pools in 1998. More than 360 people were infected.

Some Canberra pools are rigorous in dealing with these incidents. However, some appear pretty lax.

Over a decade of visiting Canberra’s pools, mainly in spring and summer, we’ve just about seen it all: from parents happily allowing their kids to pee in the pool to toddlers in the water with overloaded, leaking nappies.

Although it’s not common, we’ve seen evidence of projectile vomiting and diarrhoea. Often the toilets look like they haven’t been cleaned for a long time. A visit to a crowded public pool in summer can sometimes be pretty disgusting.

I don’t want to put people off going to public pools, but I do think parents need to be a bit more responsible when it comes to what their children are doing in the water.

Swim nappies aren’t a catch all and you still need to take your child to the toilet regularly even if they are toilet trained. Kids with diarrhoea shouldn’t be at the pool at all.

As the CDC’s guidelines observe: “Those who swim when ill with diarrhoea place other swimmers at significant risk of getting sick… It is important that all pool managers stress to patrons that swimming when ill with diarrhoea is an unhealthy swimming behaviour.”

Some of Canberra’s pool operators ought to be more vigilant in implementing ACT Health’s code of practice. It might be inconvenient to close a pool, especially when it’s packed with swimmers on a hot summer day but from time to time that’s just what has to be done.

Summer is coming and it would be timely for the ACT Government to launch a new public health campaign about pool hygiene. Then we might be confident it’s safe to go into the water.

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