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Keeping germs away from your kids at the ‘spraygrounds’ this summer

Damian Stewart, 8, plays in the splash pad at a park in South Bend, Ind., in June. Over 1,800 splash pads operate in major cities, a group says. (Michael Caterina/AP)

For parents with young children, a trip to the splash pad can be a welcome relief from sweltering summer temperatures.

“Spraygrounds” are more popular than ever. In its 2022 report on park amenities nationwide, the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence documented over 1,800 splash pads in major cities, up from 1,300 in 2017.

They’re billed as a great way to cool off and a safer alternative to swimming pools. But the fun interactive fountains can spray something else: germs.

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Some splash pads use recirculated water that’s disinfected before it’s pumped upward again. But their mechanisms can make appropriate disinfection difficult, especially in an environment frequented by children in diapers.

Sitting or standing on the jets — a favorite pastime of children of all ages — can wash feces, dirt and microorganisms into the water and spray them into the air … or people’s mouths.

That has presented serious consequences for some spraygrounds. In 2005, thousands of people contracted a gastrointestinal illness after visiting an Upstate New York water attraction. And in more recent years, children have been sickened and some have even died after playing in splash pads.

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In 2020, a 6-year-old contracted and died of primary amebic meningoencephalitis after playing in a decorative fountain in Texas. Last year, a 3-year-old died of the same condition after a splash pad visit in Texas. Naegleria fowleri, the amoeba implicated in both deaths, thrives in warm water and is known as “brain-eating” because it destroys brain tissue. It is fatal in over 97 percent of cases.

Although rare, the deaths and illnesses have prompted some states and municipalities to tighten up regulation of splash pads.

Parents can play a role, too.

On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that parents keep kids out of the water if they’re sick with diarrhea, encourage frequent bathroom breaks and check diapers regularly. Parents should discourage kids from swallowing water, make sure they don’t urinate or defecate in or near the fountains, and prevent children from sitting or standing on the jets.

It might be tough to wrangle kids mesmerized by the interactive fun of splashing water. But it’s worth it to prevent disease for everyone — and keep the fun going all summer long.