CDC Warns of Gastrointestinal Illness Risk Linked to Park “Splash Pads”

Wildlife park splash pad linked to two outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses raises concerns about the safety of the water fountains that have become increasingly popular nationwide

Federal health officials indicate there may be hidden risks associated with “splash pads,” and other increasingly popular water fountains which allow children to cool off on hot days, potentially leading to the spread of gastrointestinal illnesses.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a a report in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on August 5, which details two different recent gastrointestinal illness outbreaks linked to splash pads at a Kansas wildlife park, which sickened nearly 30 people in June.

The two outbreaks of acute gastrointestinal illness were linked to using “splash pads” that are now commonly found at many parks and are widely used during the summer months. One of the incidents involved an outbreak caused by Shigella bacteria, which sickened at least 21 people who visited the park on June 11, including three children who had to be hospitalized. The other outbreak was caused by norovirus and sickened six people who visited June 18.

Splash Pad Contamination Risks

Splash pads are ground level water fountains that feature spraying water, water jets and a small splash area intended for children. They do not have standing water, like swimming pools, so they are not regulated by state and county health codes. However, reports suggest that the water can still become contaminated and pose serious risks for children.

Splash pads are attractive for young children who can run and play in the water jets, but young children also wear diapers and often have poor hygiene. A child with a soiled diaper playing over a jet can lead to fecal matter recirculating in the splash pad jets. Children also tend to open their mouths and swallow the water, ingesting any bacteria in the water.

The report highlighted a separate splash pad outbreak in 2010, which stemmed from children wearing diapers sitting on water jets and opening their mouths to the water.

Additionally, the splash pad water gets aerosolized, which reduces the chlorine concentration in the water, making it difficult to maintain sanitized water and prevent the spread of disease.

The two recent outbreaks in Kansas not only involved splash pads but stemmed from the wildlife park. People visited animal exhibits, potentially picking up contaminants, then visited the splash pad where bacteria spread through the water and into visitor’s mouths.

Water stood in the splash pad collection tank overnight instead of being continuously recirculated, filtered, and chlorinated.

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An additional 63 illnesses were reported between the two outbreaks but could not be definitively linked due to lab testing. The CDC tested the splash pad pumps throughout the park and found three of seven were positive for bacteria. The splash pad was finally closed down on June 19.

It is key for water features to maintain adequate disinfection and splash pads should not be exempt from regulation under public health codes, especially since splash pad use increases the risk of illness, health experts warn. These aren’t the first outbreaks tied to splash pads.

The CDC recommends people at least follow similar guidelines as when they swim in pools: Do not get in the water if they experience symptoms of illness or diarrhea. Do not sit or stand above water jets, and do not swallow the water.

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