When it comes to avoiding dirty or dangerous summer attractions, a little intel from safety experts and germ scientists can go a long way.
1. Swimming Pool
An overwhelming chlorine scent. Think this is a sign of a well-treated pool? A strong chlorine odor in an indoor facility actually signals that chemicals are working hard to neutralize a heavy load of urine, sweat, poop, and other icky stuff in the water—and smelly chlorine gas is released into the air as a by-product, explains Frank Goldstein, president of Chesapeake Aquatic Consultants, in Grasonville, Maryland. In fact, lots of chlorine odor in the air suggests there may not be enough left in the water to kill off disease-causing contaminants like E. coli and giardia.
Cloudy water. This means that a pool’s chemicals are off balance, there is not enough active sanitizing chemical in the water, or that the circulation/filter system isn’t working properly.
Brown bubbles on the surface of a spa. It’s a sign of a heavily used and improperly maintained Jacuzzi, says Goldstein. That brown stuff is likely body oil, urine, and cosmetics.
Broken tiles, missing grates, debris floating or sunk to the bottom of the pool, trash on the deck. Poor maintenance and disrepair may hint at dangers you don’t see, like undertreated water. Additionally, any crack or hole in the pool wall (except “skimmers,” the water outlets on the side that continually filter out debris) could catch onto a child’s bathing suit or hair, drowning him or causing potentially fatal injuries, says Goldstein.
Stagnant wading pool. Because they are a bigger challenge to keep clean, many kiddie pools have additional water treatment and faster filtration systems than adult pools. When you look at one, it should be obvious that the water’s moving, says epidemiologist Jonathan Yoder, deputy chief of the waterborne-disease prevention branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overcrowding. Too many people packing a pool isn’t merely a drowning risk. All those bodies (and the germy stuff that washes off them) can be too much for pool chemicals to keep in check. Ask the lifeguard what time the pool tends to clear out, and if possible, come back at that hour instead.
Lots of babies swimming in diapers. How can you tell they’re in there? Look at parents changing diapers on the pool patio.
2. Indoor Play Areas
Outdated or absent signs. Kids and parents love freestanding Funplexes and the play zones attached to restaurants. But only one state (Arizona) requires them to meet standardized health-and-safety guidelines. “When operators buy play equipment from a company, they sign a contract that they’ll do certain things to keep the structure clean and safe. But no one makes sure they follow through,” says Erin Carr-Jordan, Ph.D., CEO of Phoenix-based Kids Play Safe. Every indoor play area should post its cleaning schedule. If it’s not visible, ask the person in charge how often the space is sanitized. Also helpful: Have your kids wash their hands as soon as they emerge from the play area and before they eat.
Bare flooring. Children have fallen off play equipment and suffered brain injuries. Floors should be covered with a forgiving surface, like rubber.
Obvious wear and tear. Those rigid plastic tunnels can be razor-sharp when cracked; they’ve actually lacerated children and caregivers, says Dr. Carr-Jordan. Exposed bolts can cause injuries too. In addition, kids have fallen through torn netting. Before letting your child roam free in a playspace, accompany her through the space to give the equipment a once-over. A sagging net is your clue that a rip may be imminent and your child should stay on the ground.
Visible smudges, stains, and graffiti. “If you see this outside a play structure, you can assume it’s even worse inside,” says Dr. Carr-Jordan, who spent months crawling into tunnels and tubes herself. The dirt and grime is not just gross, but dangerous. Dr. Carr-Jordan and her team took samples that showed high levels of fecal contamination and disease-causing pathogens.
Buildup of food, trash, and dirt in corners. “It’s a telltale sign they’re using fans to blow debris away, which doesn’t clean the equipment and instead spreads dust and dirt around,” says Dr. Carr-Jordan.
A run-down lobby. If there’s no budget to keep up the space that makes the first impression, you can bet there’s little money for guest rooms, says Jacob Tomsky, author of Heads in Beds, a memoir of his years working in the hotel industry.
Exposed blankets on beds. Hotels launder sheets between guests, but even some of the toniest places wash blankets monthly or less often, says Bjorn Hanson, Ph.D., a professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies, in New York City. Your best option: hotels like Holiday Inn Express & Suites, which “triple-sheet” their beds, with one sheet over the mattress and two around the duvet.
A strangely sweet or musty smell. Exterminators say this can be an indication of a heavy bedbug infestation. Even if there’s no odor, check for critters, flaky casings, and rust-colored spots (blood) on the mattress, mattress piping, and box spring.
Greasy smudges on light switches and door handles. Housekeepers who miss these obvious spots likely miss many others. Wipe those germy areas, as well as the TV remote, phone, bathroom door handle, and bathroom vanity, with disinfectant towelettes.
4. Petting Zoos
No signs. In a clean and sanitary petting zoo, you’ll see posters everywhere warning that animals carry germs that make people sick and advising visitors to follow all safety guidelines.
Insufficient hand-washing station. You’re in good shape if there’s running water, a soap dispenser, and disposable towels for drying, says attorney Bill Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark, in Seattle. Sanitizer stations don’t cut it in this setting, but bringing sanitary wipes—and using them frequently on your kids’ hands—does help.
No personnel directing visitors. A teenager seated out front isn’t enough. Staff should be telling parents and kids how to touch the animals and where to wash their hands.
Manure outside animal pens. No surface will be completely clear of animal poop (sorry). But piles that kids might sit in or stand in, or that strollers might roll through, are a clear red flag. Look down!
Food service near animals or their pens. “There have been illness outbreaks linked to county fairs where dried manure became airborne and contaminated food,” warns Marler. An easy fix: BYO lunch.
5. Amusement Parks
General disrepair. If a ride at a local carnival looks like a rattling rusty mess, go with your gut and skip it. The same applies to rides that seem to be in and out of service throughout the day. “The Consumer Products Safety Commission sets safety standards for traveling amusement rides, but outside inspections by a third party are not mandatory in many states,” says Bill Avery, president of Avery Safety Consulting, Inc., based in Maitland, Florida.
One restraint for two or more riders. Some rides have a restraint bar and/or one seat belt that cinches across two people. “If you have kids of two different sizes, the restraint may be tight around the bigger child but leave room for the smaller child to get up and move around,” says Avery. If an adult can ride with the child on a low-key ride and supervise, that’s a good idea. Otherwise, it may be a no-go.
Poorly fitting restraints. “Among the most awful things I’ve seen are kids ejected from a ride while wearing a one-size-fits-all restraint that doesn’t fit them snugly,” says Avery. If your child plans to ride alone and an attendant isn’t willing to show you that his restraint is sufficiently snug, don’t let him on the ride.
No one at the controls while the ride is going. “A ride operator must be trained and prepared to engage the emergency-stop button and shut down the ride when necessary, says Avery. Make sure the attendant remains at the controls while your child is on board.
Sagging bouncy houses. When these are underinflated, they’re too pliable, which makes it easier for kids to twist their ankle or even suffocate, says Avery. Check for creasing at the base and drooping in the decorative details up top. “If those are sagging, you know there’s a major leak,” he says. Look for a soft landing pad at the entrance and exit too. Kids can be seriously injured when they bounce out of an inflatable onto hard ground.
6. Outdoor Playgrounds
Insufficient or inappropriate ground cover. Falls are a major cause of playground injuries that send children to the E.R. “Some private communities use insufficient materials such as grass under their equipment, but it’s just not enough to cushion a child’s fall,” says Karen Snyder, senior manager of certification for the National Recreation and Park Association based in Ashburn, Virginia. (Obviously, concrete or asphalt aren’t soft enough either.) The materials that are considered safe include wood chips, and sand and pea gravel, which should extend about 6 feet beyond the equipment. “If you can push away that covering and see the dirt, it means there’s most likely not enough there to provide protection,” says Snyder. If you can’t avoid the playground altogether, encourage your child to use the equipment that’s low to the ground, or bring a ball along to play catch or soccer.
Lack of signs. In a well-designed and well-maintained playground, the intended age range for the equipment is clearly posted. A sign should also include contact information for the person who oversees the playground.
Lots to stumble on. Tree roots and broken rubber ground cover can easily cause a child or a caregiver to take a spill. They may also be a sign of poor playground oversight and maintenance.
Catch hazards. Strangulation is the top cause of death on playgrounds, so diligent managers do all they can to minimize the chance of scarves and drawstrings getting caught on hazardous hardware. S-hooks that make up chains for swings should be completely closed. If you can squeeze in even a dime, it’s dangerous, says Snyder. Bolts on equipment shouldn’t protrude more than one-eighth of an inch, since they, too, can catch onto loose clothing and scrape or cut kids. To do your part, supervise children at all times and remove any drawstrings, scarves, jump ropes, and dangling jewelry before your kids get onto the playground.
Rust. It could be a sign of deterioration and equipment that may be dangerously weak.
Broken fencing. Good, solid fencing makes it harder for kids to wander away into traffic and for sketchy strangers to wander in unnoticed.
Sticky tablecloths and seats, condiments clotted with dried food, trash under the table. All are signs of subpar upkeep that make you wonder how gross that wipe-up rag will be when your waiter finally comes to clean.
Greasy, spotted menus. Staff should frequently wipe them down with cleaner and a paper towel, or replace them if they’re disposable. This can be hard to monitor, so have your kids wash their hands or use hand sanitizer after they place their orders. Never rest your menu on your plate.
Bare hands. Gloves are mandatory for kitchen workers who come into direct contact with food, so sneak a peek on your way to the restroom. Another common hand problem: Counter staff who bounce back and forth between prepping food and working the cash register. If the guy making sandwiches is the same person running customers’ credit cards—and he’s not changing his gloves—find another lunch spot.