Preventing Recreational Waterborne Illnesses at Water Parks

waterborne illnesses

Water parks, swimming pools, splash pads, and other venues are responsible for the safety of their guests. Unfortunately, an insidious threat to swimmer safety is waterborne illnesses. According to the CDC, 3600 people have become sick over the past five years, and 13 people have died from diseases from water parks and recreational water sites.

The two primary sources of waterborne illnesses are pathogens and improperly balanced pool chemicals. Approximately half a dozen common pathogens cause waterborne illnesses that can be managed with proper pool and water sanitation. However, swimmers can also become ill due to contact with fecal matter passed from other patrons through the water in the pool. That’s why it’s critical to maintain proper pool sanitation and to encourage swimmers to maintain appropriate hygiene.

Illnesses at water parks can result from the improper use of chlorine and other pH-maintaining chemicals in the water. For example, a chemical leak at a Hurricane Harbor water park in Texas sent dozens of people to the hospital from respiratory issues last year. The park was forced to close for two days while investigating the cause of the chemical spill.

Venues can be susceptible to lawsuits when patrons become ill. This post will examine the most common waterborne illnesses and how water parks can best prevent them.

What are recreational water illnesses (RWIs)?

Germs or inappropriate pool chemical mixtures can cause recreational waterborne illnesses (RWIs). RWIs are contracted by ingesting contaminated water or aerosolized mists.

Common pathogens that cause waterborne illnesses include:

  • Cryptosporidium, or crypto for short, causes acute gastrointestinal illnesses.
  • Legionella, also known as legionnaire’s disease, causes respiratory illness. When left untreated, legionella can cause a life-threatening type of pneumonia.
  • Norovirus is spread through infected stool or vomit; noroviruses cause extreme gastrointestinal distress.
  • E. Coli and Shigella exhibit similar symptoms. Shigella can cause blood in the stool, and e. coli causes diarrhea and even kidney damage.
  • Giardia is a common cause of diarrhea. It can take up to 45 minutes for chlorine to kill this pathogen.
  • Nontuberculous mycobacteria spreads through unsanitized water vapor and can cause life-threatening allergic reactions.

Other common infections include “hot tub rash,” ear infections, and swimmer’s itch. The most common symptoms of overexposure to pool chemicals are respiratory and can include coughing, wheezing, and asthma attacks.


Also read: Water Park Injuries: Risks and Liabilities


RWI prevention for venues

Being proactive is the key to preventing waterborne illnesses in water parks and other venues. The first step is implementing a plan to prevent outbreaks and outlining how to appropriately respond when outbreaks occur. A quality RWI prevention plan includes the following points:

  • Make training a priority
  • Maintain water quality and equipment
  • Keep a regular inspection schedule with licensed professionals
  • Post and distribute swimmer hygiene information (see next section for details)
  • Develop an outbreak response plan to maximize guest safety in the event of an outbreak
  • Research and invest in new pool sanitation technology

Learn more: A Guide to Effective Winter Maintenance for Waterparks


Waterborne illness prevention for swimmers

While responsibility for swimmers’ safety falls on venues, individuals should be vigilant to protect their health and others.

Swimming best practices include:

  • Always shower before and after swimming.
  • Do not swim if you have diarrhea.
  • Avoid swallowing pool water when you swim.
  • Take children to the restroom often, and wash hands thoroughly after changing diapers.
  • Change diapers in the bathroom and not beside the pool.
  • Bathe toddlers and young children thoroughly before allowing them in the pool.
  • Dry ears promptly after exiting the pool, and consider wearing earplugs while swimming.
  • Avoid entering a pool or hot tub if there is a strong chlorine smell, the water is cloudy, or a line of scum is visible around the edge of the pool.

Also read: Renovating Waterparks: 3 Questions to Consider


Protect your venue from waterborne illness outbreaks with proper insurance coverage

Waterborne illnesses are a pervasive but preventable risk. Therefore, water parks must invest in planning, training, and preventative maintenance to protect their patrons from pathogens or chemical overexposure. Perhaps the most critical item in the RWI prevention checklist is reviewing and updating insurance coverage. Despite the best of intentions, waterborne illness outbreaks can happen to a water park of any size. The right insurance policy can protect against costly legal damages and mitigate risk.

McGowan Allied Specialty insurance has over 35 years of experience in the entertainment industry. We offer a deep understanding of the specific challenges facing water parks and attractions of all kinds.