Keeping Recreational Water Facilities Safe

By Doug Farquhar | Vol . 23, No. 24 | June 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Outbreaks of diseases associated with aquatic venues have nearly quadrupled—to more than 40 per year.
  • The Cryptosporidium (Crypto) germ is the leading cause of diarrheal outbreaks related to swimming pools.
  • A national voluntary effort is underway to reduce the number of illnesses and injuries from recreational water facilities.

Swimming in public pools, relaxing in spas, and playing at splash pads and water parks are some of the most popular forms of recreational exercise. Aquatic facilities are visited more than 300 million times every year. Because there are so many visitors, keeping these facilities safe and sanitary raises challenges, including maintaining water quality, using chemicals properly, filtering out debris and contaminants, and training lifeguards.

Swallowing contaminated water, breathing contaminated water mists or even swimming in contaminated water can lead to recreational water illness. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others have shown an increase in the number of disease outbreaks associated with swimming and aquatic venues. In the early 1990s, the CDC recorded an average of 12 disease outbreaks from aquatic venues annually. In the late 2000s, the yearly number went up to an average of about 40 outbreaks. Along with illnesses such as Cryptosporidiosis, Giardia and E. coli, injuries and drowning are on the rise. Each year, more than 3,500 people drown in public and commercial swimming pools, and pool chemicals cause 5,000 medical emergencies.

Federal Action

The federal government is not involved in regulating swimming pools, with a few exceptions. The Virginia Graeme Baker Act (VGB), adopted in 2007, requires that pools be equipped with anti-entrapment devises to prevent swimmers (especially young children) from being caught in pool and spa drains. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires pools, spas and other aquatic venues covered by the law to be accessible.

For the most part, state and local governments regulate aquatic venues, resulting in diverse and, in some cases, outdated laws and rules.

Model Aquatic Health Code. Although nearly all states regulate public swimming pools, newer aquatic venues—such as lazy rivers, splash parks, spray fountains, and wading and therapy pools—may not necessarily be covered under swimming pool codes. In response to concerns by state and local officials regarding the adequacy of their pool codes, the CDC, along with the aquatics industry, state and local agencies, and pool operators together developed consistent standards to address public health and safety in aquatic venues. The resulting Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) was designed as a voluntary guideline for state and local governments to either adopt or amend their codes to ensure they are up to date with the latest pool technologies and health and safety standards.

This voluntary health-based code aims to reduce the likelihood of disease outbreaks, drowning and chemical injuries. It incorporates the latest science to help ensure that aquatic facilities are designed, built, operated, maintained and managed properly, and identifies the right chemicals to keep the water clean and the swimmers free from waterborne diseases. It addresses federal ADA and VGB requirements and covers the wide variety of today’s public aquatic facilities, including swimming pools, hot tubs, spas, lazy rivers, interactive fountains and water parks. It does not cover private pools or spas, although laws in eight states and in some local governments do address private pools.

State Action

Seventy-two statutes in 47 states address recreational swimming facilities. Every state (with the exception of Alabama, Kansas and South Dakota) has a law governing aquatic venues. The general public health laws in Alabama and Kansas allow them to regulate these facilities, however. All the laws except Vermont’s cover swimming pools, many cover hot tubs and spas, and some cover splash pads and water parks.

The Model Aquatic Health Code was published in August 2014, and several states (including Delaware and New Mexico) are considering adopting it.

In addition, although they are not necessarily comprehensive, current state laws address specific aspects of public pool health and safety, many of which are found in the MAHC, including:

  • Aquatic operator and lifeguard training—Nineteen states require operator training and certification.
  • Aquatic facility permitting—Twenty-two states require swimming facilities to have a state permit.
  • Sanitation—Eight statutes provide specific requirements regarding pool sanitation.
  • Inspections—Twenty-eight states’ laws address inspection, with most providing local health departments the authority to inspect certain aquatic facilities.

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