Cut the Crap: The Dark Side of Hotel Pools and How to Manage It

Last Updated May 27, 2010 8:32 PM EDT

If you're enjoying your hotel pool and spa, there's a 1 in 6 chance you're lying in a contaminated stew of fecal matter, urine and waterborne illness like shigella and novovirus. But with routine maintenance and sanitation, a hotel pool doesn't have to be a toxic playground.

The Centers for Disease Control and Control and Prevention found that, aside from childcare facilities, that 16,569 hotels, resorts and motels had the highest rate of closure due to serious code violations, mainly low disinfectant in the water to battle bacteria, about 15% or 1 in 6 hotel inspections. Shigella and novovirus cause stomach and intestinal infections like gastroenteritis. Another microorganism found in pools is pseudomonas, which causes harmless but unsightly pustules on the skin. From WHEC:

Each year, there are about 15 or 20 outbreaks from stomach bugs blamed on pools, the CDC said. Studies suggest a quarter of them are caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites that should have been killed by proper pool treatment and chlorination.

The main causes seem to be the difficulty in keeping outdoor pools clean and the fact that bacteria and viruses thrive in heated pools. The worst pools are those frequented by small children, who frequently urinate in the pool or whose behinds or diapers, containing disease-causing fecal matter, may overflow in water. Urine, along with sunblock, contains nitrogen that can eat up the cleansing-agent chlorine in pools. (Not that kids are totally to blame; 1 in 5 adults also admitted to peeing in a pool.)

To prevent closures or violations, hotel managers and staff should be using routine maintenance and sanitation, with frequent pool checks during high use when chlorine will get a work-out. Anyone, including a member of the hotel staff can check the pH level of the pool by using free test strips available from the Water Quality & Health Council (water levels should be within 7.2 to 7.8.)

Also, having a diaper-changing area outside of the pool could prevent parents from changing dirty diapers near the pool and spreading disease. Hotel staff should also download or use Healthy Pools posters from the CDC which stress the importance of hygiene, from babies to adults, in and around the pool. Because the message is from the government, not your company, it may already have an air of authority that guests may be more willing to follow.

Photo: K. Sawyer