Fountain Frolicking Can Be Fun, but Dangerous


A childhood tradition that no child should miss is running through the sprinkler during a hot summer day. Running through interactive fountains at parks and community pools across the country might require more caution.

The CDC has released a new report that details an outbreak of intestinal illness linked to an interactive water fountain in a Daytona Beach park last summer. This fountain is one where water rises from the ground through holes. These fountains are popular for recreational purposes, and children and adults can enjoy them as well.

After reports began coming in about sick children, the problem was discovered in Florida. An investigation was initiated that involved 86 park visitors being interviewed. Some of these were also people who had family members with serious illnesses. Only 38 of the 86 park visitors, or just under half, had reported an illness that met the criteria for diarrhea or abdominal cramps. Other symptoms included fever, vomiting, or bloody diarrhea. These were caused by Shigella parvum and Shigella sonnei bacterias.

The average age of sick children was 8 years, with the youngest at 2 years. Most people not affected were around 15 years. All 38 people claimed they had entered the fountain. 36 said they ingested water while others said they had eaten food and drinks.

Valerie Garrett MD, an epidemiologist working with the CDC’s food-borne diseases branch, describes the fountain in her “unregulated open air facility”. She claims the problem was likely even more serious than they had documented. It was estimated that approximately 4,800 people passed through the park in the time period.

Garrett tells WebMD that the incident occurred in Dayton Beach. “A lot of these people were tourists and would not have come forward or seen a local doctor, but would have gone somewhere else.”

Further inspection revealed that the fountain was using recirculated drinking water. This is quite common. The chlorination system that was used to treat this fountain’s water was not monitored and probably was missing. There was no filtering system. You have the recipe for contamination when you add a lot of toddler-aged and diapered children.

Garrett states that interactive fountains are “popping-up all over because there is a very low chance of drowning. They’re also very popular among families with young children, who are at higher risk for fecal accidents, and at increased risks for swallowing water. So basically, increased risk of contamination and transmission.”

Garrett explains that both of these bacteria can be transmitted through the ingestion of stool-contaminated water. Therefore, Garrett believes that aggressive measures to properly chlorinate and filter the water would reduce the incidence of infections.

C. parvum bacteria is not poisoned by chlorine. However, water filtering can help to catch it. The water needs to be recirculated for 30 minutes before it becomes dangerous. Garrett states that no solution is instantaneous. There are some suggestions from the CDC to prevent illness.

To prevent water contamination:

If you have diarrhea, no one should enter any water attraction.

Diapers do not prevent a child from leaking stool, even if they are new swim diapers.

Monitor diaper-wearing children for bowel movements, then change the diaper and wash with soap and water.

Avoid sitting over or on water jets as this could increase the risk of water contaminating.

To stop transmission

Don’t drink water.

Garrett believes that this is an excellent behavior modification to teach children. It’s hard when you have four-year-olds who love water and mimic the interactive fountain.

Garrett said that after the case was closed, public officials put in new controls that Garrett called “excellent.” A chlorine monitor and filtration system were installed. A sign was placed advising people not to drink the water and children in diapers were also excluded.

This is still better than the situation in the other similar case, which occurred when an outbreak took place at an interactive ornamental fountain at the Minnesota Zoo. To keep everyone away, the fountain was then fenced off.

A large commercial water park is located in Atlanta. Although people are welcome, there are strict cleanliness guidelines, no standing water kiddie pools are available, plastic swim covers are required for diapered children, and caregivers are asked not to allow their children to drink the water.

The problem is not well-known in the public eye. WebMD was told by a spokesperson for National Safety Council that they have many guidelines for pool safety. These guidelines do not include drinking water.

Wally James is the chairman of the safety committee of the World Waterpark Association. He stated that there are no standards and no responsibility for water quality control. If it’s a fountain keep it away and don’t touch. … Don’t drink water that has not been filtered or treated. It’s as simple as that.

James states that “efforts have been made to establish standards for amusement rides and decorative fountains that are water-related… they’ve failed.” It is just as difficult to get children to stop drinking from their mouths.

James tells WebMD that prevention starts with ingestion. “But if a child gets water on their hands, they will stick their fingers into their mouths, and then you’re done.” Keep them away from the water. If it’s a decorative fountain or theme-based attraction, you can stand there and stare at it, but otherwise, they will get in their mouths.

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Updated 01/24/22