Water parks are a time-honored American tradition, and a great way to beat the summer heat while stewing in strangers’ bodily fluids. Really, there’s no shortage of things to do at a water park: You can lounge in the lazy river, splash around on a slide, and even contract Hep A! The possibilities are endless.
If you’re looking to cool off this holiday weekend and encounter all sorts of bacteria, look no further than the wave pool at your local water park. These socially-acceptable cesspools are teeming with all your favorite bugs—if you’re lucky, you might even find a used tampon or diaper, like I did as a kid. While colds are temporary, chlorine can’t bleach away the haunting memory.
Speaking of chlorine, according to microbiologist Tara Smith, the popular chemical doesn’t actually “clean” the wave pool. While the chlorination process is intended to kill most common germs that might be present, it isn’t guaranteed to prevent you from contracting an illness. It certainly won’t stop you from swallowing pee—in fact, pee interacts with chlorine to create a slew of nasty chemical byproducts that can lead to red eyes, and respiratory problems.
“If [chlorine] is present and maintained at recommended levels (~1 part per million), it should kill most common pathogens,” Smith told Gizmodo. “But it’s not a cure-all and won’t protect against some pathogens that are resistant to chlorine.”
Wave pools are full of people, and people are full of germs. Chances are, the some of those germy flesh sacks in the wave pool are carrying around certain strains of bacteria, viruses, and even parasites that can evade the normal chlorination regimen and infect others.
“When it comes to germs that make people sick, the most common ones that have previously caused outbreaks at pools are bacteria like E. coli, including the very nasty E. coli O157:H7, which can cause bloody diarrhea and even kidney failure, Shigella and Salmonella, both ‘cousins’ of E. coli, viruses like norovirus and Hepatitis A, and parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium,” Smith said. “All can cause diarrhea and are spread when fecal material ends up in the pool and is swallowed by the swimmer.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), cryptosporidium outbreaks—which are linked to swimming pools and “water playgrounds”—doubled between 2014 and 2016. The parasite is transmitted when a person comes into contact with the fecal matter of a sick person—and yes, it can survive chlorine treatments. Crypto outbreaks last year “highlight the ongoing challenges that treated recreational water venues have with Crypto due to how difficult it is to kill and the small number of germs that can make people sick,” the CDC says.
Obviously, if you must go in the wave pool this summer, it’s best not to swallow the water—unless you’re looking to get the full water park experience, involving days of diarrhea and regret.
“While diarrhea is the most common type of illness from public pools, bathers can also potentially acquire skin rashes, ear infections, and respiratory infections as well,” Smith explained. “If you acquire any of these, consider reporting it back to the recreation facility so they can know if they have an outbreak on their hands.”
Water parks are fine, and sometimes, even fun! Just remember to shower before and after going into the wave pool. Or, just don’t go in the wave pool at all—it’s a goddamn petri dish of nightmares.