[Outlook]Swimming to higher standards

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[Outlook]Swimming to higher standards

What we had all hoped for happened - Korea’s Park Tae-hwan earned a gold medal in swimming.

As the people were already growing more and more interested in health and leisure, the news will definitely cause a boom in interest in water sports such as swimming.

Water parks are among the most popular vacation destinations in the summer for families to enjoy their time off together. There are also thousands of swimming pools across the country. Millions of people visit water parks and swimming pools every year.

Water parks in Bugok, Yongin, Seolak and Cheonan are open not only during the summer but throughout the year, emerging as a profitable new business. This is a huge difference from the past, when my generation would go to outdoor pools a couple of times a year, and only during the summer.

As the number of visitors to swimming pools skyrockets, the water quality control system in such places needs to be standardized. After visiting swimming pools, many people suffer from burning, bloodshot eyes and itchy skin. It’s clear that sanitation standards are not up to par when the bottom of a swimming pool is slimy and slippery. Upgrading the system is an urgent matter.

When water quality is not checked in water parks and pools, people can easily pick up enteritis, dermatitis, epidemic conjunctivitis or tympanitis. People of my generation can recall the times when swimming pools were closed down due to outbreaks of EKC eye virus.

Many countries are concerned about the water quality system in water parks. Even in advanced countries such as the United States and European countries, cases of failures in water quality control occur, even though those nations have plentiful experience in managing such facilities. Academic seminars held abroad often address how to improve water quality control.

According to a U.S. study, between 1971 and 2002, low-quality water in swimming facilities caused 141 accidents and made 15,885 people sick.

The number of such accidents is on the rise. Half of the time, the contamination is related to failures in water quality control; the second-biggest cause is swimmer negligence.

As swimming pools in Korea are packed with visitors during the summer high season, one can easily guess that our situation is more serious than that of advanced countries. Even though no comprehensive water quality investigations have been conducted on swimming pools across the country, we often hear stories about how swimming pool water is below hygiene standards.

In a swimming pool in Anyang, Gyeonggi, in 2007, disinfectants were mishandled and toxic gas was discharged as a result, making 45 people sick. In 2004, 35 percent of indoor swimming pools in Gwangju failed to meet water quality standards. From 2003 to 2004, there was a report that water quality in 12 to 15 percent of swimming pools in Seoul were below standard.

In most cases, the number of microorganisms, the most important factor in maintaining water quality, exceed safety standards, or the density of remnant disinfectant was too high.

The water in a water park sits in enclosed areas, and thus contamination is the result of swimmers’ activities. Body waste, dead skin, saliva, mucus and dirt all add up. Ammonium in urine hinders the performance of disinfectants. Recently, there was even a worry about protozoa that are immune to disinfectants. Considering that people sometimes swallow water in a swimming pool by mistake, we should take the water quality control issue more seriously.

Water becomes dirty and contaminated easily if water quality checks are only done as a formality, water purification equipment doesn’t work properly or if the equipment is out of order.

Controlling water quality in swimming pools is the duty of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, as swimming pools are categorized as sports facilities. This is the same as going to see a building manager when someone falls sick in your apartment, rather than going to see a doctor.

It doesn’t make sense to go looking for water quality experts at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

This is why a standardized water quality control system here hasn’t been created yet. In Europe, by contrast, countries have a water quality control program for all swimming pools.

Considering such worrying conditions in domestic swimming pools and low levels of water quality control, it is even more amazing that Park won a gold medal. An administrative body that specializes in water quality control must take part in the job as soon as possible.

*The writer is a professor at the school of chemical and biological engineering of Seoul National University.

by Yoon Je-yong

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