Protect Yourself: Waterborne Pathogens

Children are more susceptible to waterborne illnesses.

Recreational water illnesses are caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites found in untreated water. They are spread by swallowing untreated water while swimming, breathing in water-spray, or coming into physical contact with contaminated water. Swimming pools and hot tubs are treated with chemicals to kill bacteria, but most other recreational waters, including streams running through popular parks, decorative fountains, or small municipal ponds, are untreated and can pose health risks. Drinking water from community water systems, on the other hand, is treated to remove waterborne pathogens and is safe to drink.

Waterborne Pathogens in Recreational Waters

Bacteria, viruses, and parasites such as shigella, E. coli, norovirus, cryptosporidium, and giardia are often found in recreational waters. The best way to reduce potential health risks is to assume all surface waters contain some waterborne pathogens regardless of whether they are monitored or an advisory is issued.

The Division of Water Quality (DWQ) and local health departments (LHDs) currently test for E. coli in their monitoring and sampling programs. E. coli is used as an “indicator organism” for fecal contamination in water bodies. Indicator organisms generally do not cause illness themselves but have characteristics that make them good indicators of the presence of harmful pathogens in the water. While E. coli are often present in recreational waters, most strains are not dangerous to people.

Stay Healthy, Swim Healthy

Water that looks clean can still make people sick. DWQ and LHDs monitor high-use recreation areas regularly during the May through October recreation season, but fecal contamination can occur between visits.

It’s important to plan ahead by taking time before playtime. Before leaving home, check water conditions and advisories on DEQ’s Recreational Advisory Map. Avoid areas with a posted health advisory. Follow advisory recommendations and avoid activities like swimming that could lead to illness.

Follow these tips to stay safe and healthy when recreating in Utah waters:

  • Don’t swallow the water while swimming.
  • Wash hands with soap and clean water before eating or preparing food.
  • Shower with soap and clean water before and after swimming, water-skiing, or playing in the water or sand.
  • Visit the bathroom before going into the water.
  • Wash and cook fish thoroughly and wash hands after handling fish or lake water.
  • Avoid swimming in recreational waters at least 48 to 72 hours after a significant rainstorm.
  • Don’t swim or wade in stormwater ponds or irrigation ditches.
  • Avoid areas of scummy or smelly water or obvious waterfowl or wildlife wastes.

Protect Recreational Waters from Fecal Contamination

Visitors to Utah’s recreational waters can do their part to keep lakes, reservoirs, and streams clean and help protect Utah waters from fecal contamination by following these guidelines:

  • Don’t swim in the water while experiencing diarrhea or within two weeks of having diarrhea.
  • Don’t be an inadvertent source of fecal contamination. Shower with soap and clean water before swimming.
  • Take children for frequent bathroom breaks and diaper changes. Don’t change diapers near the water.
  • Rinse children off away from the water.
  • Pick up dog waste and dispose of it properly.

Contact the Utah Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222, Utah Department of Health (801) 538-6191, or a physician if experiencing a gastrointestinal illness that may be related to recreating in untreated surface water.