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Letter From The Editor: Two Well-Placed Words

Cryptosporidium, one of those nasty little parasites, was having its way with the recreational swimming waters of Utah during the hot-weather months of 2007. One public swimming pool after another was reporting the problem. To its credit, Utah did not stick its head in the sand. About 5,700 people were sickened in that summer’s Cryptosporidium outbreak.  There were no secrets about the public swimming pools that were involved, and nobody was saying just add a little “extra chlorine” and all will be OK.

Instead, Utah attacked the parasite invasion the following spring with an all-out and very public assault. It warned swimmers with pool-side posters, radio announcements and even television spots, and instituted protocols for responding to “fecal incidents.” Two years after the outbreak, survey research showed that 100 percent of Utah residents knew that anyone sick with diarrhea who was swimming in a public pool was putting others at risk. Utah’s healthy swimming campaign was a success because it fully informed the public.

This summer, there is Iowa. It’s hard to tell what Iowans know because, like mushrooms, they are kept in the dark and fed fecal material. And, it all happens because of two little words. We will get to those in a moment.

“Crypto” is a recurring problem in Iowa. Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the state medical director, anticipated another run this summer when she issued a May 15 press release with a headline asking, “Recreational Water Illness: Are You to Blame?”

She at least gets credit for candor. “To be blunt, most RWIs in pools are caused by human poop in the water,” she said.

But the straight talk was no substitute for keeping the public informed as the “Crypto” outbreak in Iowa unfolded this summer.

Iowa has recorded 358 “Crypto” cases so far this year, 30 more than all of last year and 272 since June 1. The responsible public health strategy would be to report these illnesses as they occurred, including the public pools that are involved. But Iowa’s public health officials say they cannot do that because of two little words. They are referring to Iowa Code 139A.3. Every state has a law like this. It protects individuals who cooperate with public health officials investigating a communicable and/or infectious disease from having their personal identities disclosed. No one could have much of a problem with that.

The Iowa code, however, contains two little words that should not be there. In a section of the law that is all about “any person” and protecting individuals, the two words that pop up in a key spot are simply “or business.” What it says is that information contained in public health records has to be stated in a manner that prevents the identification of “any person or business named in the report.”

And Iowa has carried those two words to the extreme. The Iowa Department of Public Health knows the location of at least 30 public swimming pools that have had their share of “Crypto” parasites this summer, but cannot name them because of those two words.  On the list are pools open to the public that may be owned by hotels, theme parks and municipalities.

An attorney general’s opinion, out of the office of Democrat Tom Miller, has applied the “or business” protection to the pools. Under Iowa law, the state epidemiologist or public health director can only name businesses if it is “necessary for protection of public health.”

So, Iowans are being kept in the dark about public swimming pools with parasites and they were not told about the 30 grocery stores, 15 restaurants and a handful of other outlets that were earlier this summer distributing Mexican-grown salad makings with another species of parasite, Cyclospora.

Consumers could take home mixed salads from any of those 50 outlets on Iowa’s private list. If it were made public, chances are the good folks who do business with those establishments would listen more carefully and probably take one more pass through their 30- or 40-square-foot refers to see if any of it might still be stuck away somewhere.

Instead, Iowa public health officials assume all the product must be consumed by now and by doing so they do not have to challenge the state’s silly law with a little logic.

As for the swimming pools, I am wondering how many repeat offenders IDPH has seen this summer. Utah proved the fight against “Crypto” is more than just pressing the “extra chorine” button. It’s forcing pool owners and educating the populace on management practices to keep poop out.

Wading pools and splash pools are often the problem. Check these out sometime and you will likely see tots with sagging diapers among their biggest users. We’ve seen municipalities skirt state laws to do these facilities on the cheap.  If pool diseases can be kept secret, private owners are not going to change.

 

© Food Safety News
  • Don Schaffner

    This is a nice bit of writing, thanks Dan! Why are the Iowans not rioting in the streets, that’s what I want to know!

  • Corey

    Crypto-contaminated public pools and outbreak-causing salad mix are both health hazards. Regardless of how the law in Iowa is written, naming these businesses would have in fact been “necessary for protection of public health”. So how did IDPH not see it as such?

  • Carlo Silvestr

    As I noted to a friend when the Cyclospora was rampant, so now I will state publicly, I’m glad I don’t live in Iowa. It seems to be the heck with the general public, just protect business!