MIT shuts down its $50 million pool due to bacterial contamination

In a comment response to an earlier blog posting, I mentioned that MIT didn’t provide soap in the showers for its almost-new $50 million Olympic-size swimming pool.  I thought this was kind of disgusting because it means that people don’t take soap showers before swimming (in theory someone could make an extra trip back and forth to a locker, but I haven’t seen it done).  I also figured that if the small town swimming pools on the Alaska Highway in the Yukon Territory could arrange to get soap delivered for their liquid soap dispensers, MIT could too.  I went so far as to email the head of the athletics department at MIT, offering to pay for the soap for the entire gym out of my own pocket and arrange for its delivery (I figured if Motel 6 can afford those little soap bars, I could too).  She declined my offer and said that they aren’t interested in providing soap even if an alumnus pays for it, but asked me to give her department money anyway that they would use for other stuff.  This was just a couple of weeks ago.

What did I see when I went to the Z-Center gym today?  A big sign that the pool is closed for awhile because they have to fix the water chemistry.  I asked one of the staff members and she explained that it was not a scheduled closure:  “The bacteria got out of control.”

15 thoughts on “MIT shuts down its $50 million pool due to bacterial contamination

  1. The Greenspun Alumni Endowed Soap Dispenser…it’s got a nice ring to it, I’m surprised they didn’t go for it. Maybe this is a new strategy for running an institution of higher learning…micro-endowment. The 32Papa Endowed paper towel dispenser? For those who can’t afford a building or professorship…

  2. In other unsurprising news, MIT does not provide soap for (at least some) dorms, either. Not shower soap– I’m talking about *hand soap*. East Campus floors use their own hall funds (i.e. student tax) to buy soap so that people can wash their hands. Bah! (32Papa, We used to steal paper towel dispensers from the main buildings for our bathrooms. Your donation would have been greatly appreciated!).

    Oh, and you’re not that wierd– I’ve previously thought of giving money to EC to buy soap when I get rich (that is, “when I get out of grad school”).

  3. I don’t see how a soap shower, frankly a shower of any kind, is going to dramatically alter the rather nil risk of infection in a swimming pool. If the critters don’t get through your skin or mucous membranes while walking around in your clothes, how is a hypotonic solution with lots of chlorine-induced free radicals and no energy-containing substrates going to improve their odds? Last I checked, there aren’t a lot of naturally occuring chlorinated, fresh-water swimming pools in the planet’s evolutionary history.

    What are the odds that a bacteria capable of blooming in human tissue is also going to be able to live on human skin AND bloom in a hypotonic solution with lots of chlorine-induced free radicals and no energy-containing substrates? Oh, what’s the temperature in this pool, by the way?

    What’s the surface area of the pool? How many airborne spores, flakes of dead skin, etc, etc, float onto the surface of that pool every day? Every hour? Every minute? Every second?

    I’m all for soap. Big fan of soap. More people should use it more often. I’d like to see it available in publicly accessible showers of all kinds, and I think it’s a bit odd the director declined your offer. Makes me wonder if maybe the tone of the conversation was maybe a little less convivial that your sparse outline makes out. Regardless, this inuendo about human hygeine and pool chemistry has no basis in fact, or even the most cursory mathematics, let alone bacteriology.

    If anything, the pool’s issue points out the unwillingness of academics to get out of the lab and actually apply what they get flown all over the world for purportedly knowing. How many chemistry and biology people at MIT could provide the pool guy some really top notch monitoring for less than the cost of a single pool membership? Do the PhDs all wander around in their white lab coats thinking the pool guy is getting his information from Nature and Science magazines? He learned how to monitor the pool chemistry from the last pool guy, who got his information from the back of the little chemistry kit he picked up at Les’s Mo’ Pool Supplies.

    In fact, if the computer nerd talked to the biology nerd in the next shower over, I’ll bet the two could come up with a nice pool monitoring system with live web updates the director could check between games of Solitaire. For less than the cost of soap.

    And swimming in the ocean is not, in any way, safer than swimming in a pool. Pool bacteria or not. The tidal zone has the widest biodiversity of any geographic zone. And most of that diversity is at the low end of the evolutionary scale. And where, exactly do you think fish and whales relieve themselves?

    Good for having an idea about sanitation. This one happened to not be a good idea. But hey, takes a lot of bad ideas to get the good ones.

  4. I gotta tell you, I swam competitively from 6-17, so I’ve spent a lot of time in pools and locker rooms. (often in university pools) In my experience, soap or no (and most places I swam did have liquid soap in the dispensers) I’d estimate 5% (and that’s being extremely generous) actually follow the instructions and shower before they get in the pool. I’d say it’s an exceedingly rare habit (at least here in California). I don’t think people actually have that many harmful organisms on their outside (at least in levels that the chemicals can’t handle). From my experience, most closures like yours are the result of “Accidents” (See Film “Caddyshack”). One thing that has been changing lately, is that large fancy pools have been putting in ozone based antibacterial systems, and reducing the chemical concentrations. (It’s cheaper, smells better, and not as rough on people, swimsuits, an hair chemically) I wonder if the reliance on those makes it easier for bacteria to survive a little longer.

  5. Even if they’re using ozone, and most new pools do, its much more pleasant, thay can and do add chlorine in liquid form when required to improve the water. What is more likely that rather than bacteria, it is one of the protozoas, giardia or cryptosporidium, which are harder to kill. And as someone mentioned they are more likely to occur due to “accidents” than not washing.

  6. 50 MILLION for a pool and they’ve no money for soap? It sounds as if they are into building whatever they can get the allumni and other donors to spring for but their focus includes only the majesty and grandeur of the physical plant and not anything about the users.

    That said, bacterial contamination is probably not because of the missing soap. However their cheapness is likely to extend to purchase of pool chemicals.

  7. Perhaps one strategy to get attention (whether it’s scientifically accurate or not) might be to say “handwashing is important to stopping infectious contamination and contagion, for example flu infections.” It’s kinda unbelievable that in a dorm environment (translate to “great hothouse for the spread of infection, lots of people, lots of shared/touchable surfaces, lots of food/eating, etc”) there isn’t an institutional ethic of “wash your hands.”

  8. there *is* an institutional ethic of ‘wash your hands’ in the dorms. it’s not like people say “well, the housing office won’t buy me any soap, so i guess i won’t use any”– it just sucks that this ethic comes at the expense of the students, not the administration. i’m a bit puzzled by the shower soap thing, though– candace royer is otherwise an eminently reasonable and extremely nice person, especially compared to the sh*tbag that she replaced.

  9. A: I didn’t want to name names, but it was Candy Royer. She was actually my tennis teacher when I was a grad student and she is still a nice person. If MIT were in New Mexico, where I hope to be tomorrow (flying a two-seat airplane), we wouldn’t have to beg administrators to carry soap from wherever UPS drops it off into the showers… (did a Google search) says “Showers in sufficient number shall be provided with hot and cold water and soap”. Too bad those guys in New Mexico didn’t listen to all of the bright folks who commented above and explained how soap isn’t actually necessary.

  10. Here in Japan they don’t allow soap or shampoo to be used, since it tends to not be completely rinsed off and it gets in the water. I think rising off in plain water is fine. The only real problem in pools is fecal matter or open, bleeding wounds. Urine is relatively sterile. What it boils down to is that kids who aren’t toilet trained are the only real danger, and even there only to other kids or AIDS victims or grannies, unless they have hepatitis or the like. The CDC web site has a pool hygiene page, by the way. There’s not a lot of actual evidence of pools, filthy or otherwise, causing any problems.

  11. I noticed the same thing the first time I swam in the pool – such a nice gym with no soap…even my HS and community pools had soap, and we’re not exactly a rich town. I’ve never heard of a school rejecting money before – what is their rationale?

  12. I like to swim laps and I have witnessed more and more people not even taking showers before entering a pool which bloggles my mind.

  13. What I’m curious about is why some people are so keen to ridicule the idea/policy of pre-swim showers.
    I suspect that most of them use/have used pools and object to the suggestion that they should wash; resent the inconveniance/time spent or feel discomfort at the lack of privacy in some facilities.

    Current thinking (a few quotes)

    “Sweat contains nitrogen and ammonia, both of which can react with chlorine and reduce its effectiveness. That reaction also causes a chlorine smell — a clear indication, Knoop says, that all is not well at the pool. Urine, hair spray and suntan oil in the water can have the same effect. And people who don’t shower after going to the bathroom can increase the risk of fecal contamination.

    “All the body oils funk up the filter system,” said Donald Hamel, administrator for the City of Detroit Environmental Health Services. Oil-clogged filters cannot properly circulate pool water, so it gets cloudy.

    “When we don\’t shower properly, the residual dirt reacts with the chlorine in the pool to form chloramines, which are 40-60 % less effective than chlorine in destroying pathogens. The consequence is that either pools have to be maintained at higher concentrations of chlorine, or swimmers will risk getting sick from the water.
    In indoor pools the chloramines evaporate and stay close above the water, and can irritate the eyes and throat. It may also damage the lung and trigger asthma, particularly in kids. A recent survey of nearly 2,000 students in Brussels revealed a stronger link between asthma and pool attendance than with accepted risk factors such as pet ownership or exposure to second-hand smoke.

    ” Each summer thousands of people become ill from disease-causing microorganisms in swimming pools and commercial water parks. The diseases include infection with a parasite called cryptosporidium (crip-toe-spo-RID-ee-um) and the infamous E. coli bacteria that causes many causes of food poisoning.

    “Most are mild illnesses that involve diarrhea and stomach upsets. Some are more serious, like a 1998 outbreak E. coli outbreak at a water park in which seven children developed kidney failure and one died.

    “There’s no dainty way to describe the cause. It’s fecal material. It usually gets into pool water from infants or young children who are just learning to control their bowels and often have bowel movements in the pool. The most dangerous kind is the nearly invisible stuff, watery diarrhea that spreads unnoticed throughout the pool. It often occurs in kids who are sick with E. coli, crypto, or other infections.>>>>>>>> Older children and adults are another source. Fecal material that remains on the body after using the bathroom washes off in the pool. That’s why many pools have “shower-first” rules

  14. I am a team leader lifeguard at relatively large indoor/outdoor facility comprising four pools which range in temperature from 27.5 Degrees (Training Pools) to 36.5 Degrees Centigrade (Leisure Pool). Getting all swimmers, or even 50% to shower before entering the pool would verge on the miraculous! In many cases it seems to me that some individuals regard our heated pool as a giant communal bath! No soap either by the way! Very Roman. I wont tell you how often we find it necessary to respond to a faecal incident. Suffice to say that I wish there were a profit in it! Depite the afore mentioned disgusting fact we still manage to return a monthly plate count for pseudomonas and the like well below National Standards. Oh, and we use gas chlorination at an average rate of between 3-5 g/m3 combined with a vacuum DE filtration system. So, dont get hung up about the soap… sweaty jock crotch and hairy armpits are the least of your worries…

  15. As a student, I remember the Alumni Pool at MIT as being wonderful, as they really insisted on soap showers beforehand, and the students really did it. What made it so wonderful is that the pool wasn’t absolutely saturated with chlorine, since the “input” was clean swimmers, so they didn’t need so much. So it didn’t sting your eyes, and was a pleasure to swim in.

    It’s also the only place I ever had a competent swimming teacher.

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