Local pool might be hazardous to your health
Hundreds of public swimming pools and spas in the Atlanta area have been closed for critical health violations this summer, conditions that potentially put bathers at risk of catching waterborne diseases.
While many pools pass all inspections, inspectors found no chlorine in the water at least 75 times - just in Gwinnett County.
Proper chlorine and pH levels protect swimmers against infection by bacteria and parasites, but area inspectors regularly issue citations for critical water chemistry violations and temporarily close pools run by apartments, condos, neighborhood associations, hotels and gyms.
Some pools and spas have been cited repeatedly, inspection records show, raising questions about how consistently the water is maintained when the inspector isn’t there.
“If the facility is run by the ignorant or the apathetic, that’s usually a problem,” said Tom Lachocki, chief executive officer of the National Swimming Pool Foundation, a leading trainer of pool operators.
“Fortunately, most of the illnesses one can get in a pool are not catastrophic,” he said. “But you don’t go to the pool to get diarrhea or a rash or sore eyes.”
Nobody knows how often people are sickened in Atlanta or nationally; most illnesses go unreported.
“Traditionally when people get a GI [gastrointestinal] illness, they think: What did I eat last night? We don’t tend to think about our pools,” said Michele Hlavsa, an epidemiologist in the healthy swimming program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Over the past few years, the CDC has received more reports of outbreaks associated with recreational water use at pools and water parks. Individual reports of people being infected with the parasite cryptosporidium, which often is associated with pool outbreaks, are up dramatically.
Concerned about lax pool maintenance, the CDC recommends swimmers always test the water themselves before diving in, whether at outdoor pools in the summer or year-round indoor pools. Simple test strips — purchased inexpensively at home improvement stores and pool supply shops — change color to show the pool’s chemistry and whether it’s safe.
A pool inspector may only check the pool one to three times a year, Hlavsa said. “I wouldn’t want to put my young child in a pool if I didn’t know it was well maintained,” she said.
Children’s wading pools, because of their shallow depth and smaller quantity of water, are more prone to water chemistry problems. Yet keeping chlorine and pH at proper levels is especially important in pools frequented by children who may have what the pool industry calls “fecal accidents.”
Inspection records reviewed by the AJC show chemistry problems at a range of pools and spas.
For a study published last year, CDC researchers sampled water at 160 Atlanta-area pools to see how many were contaminated with cryptosporidium and another diarrhea-causing parasite, giardia. They found one or both of the parasites in 8 percent of the pools. Although the sample size was small, researchers said the results suggest contamination may be relatively common in some pools.
Since 2001, Georgia’s health department has confirmed seven pool-related outbreaks: one each at a camp, school and hotel; the rest were at subdivision pools or private homes.
Georgia’s best-known waterborne outbreak occurred in the summer of 1998 when 26 children were sickened by a strain of E. coli bacteria after playing in the kiddie pool at White Water Park in Marietta. Seven of the children were hospitalized; one died. A state investigation found the chlorine level was too low. The outbreak raised awareness about the importance of proper chlorine levels.
Today, large water parks and aquatics centers tend to have well-trained staff that pay close attention to water chemistry, health officials said. White Water passed all its inspections in 2009, health department data show.
But when it comes to pools and spas at places like apartments and hotels, the training can vary. “The person running the pool is probably responsible for a hundred other things. People tend to underestimate what it takes to run a pool well,” Hlavsa said.
After swimming in a Smyrna hotel pool last month, 3-year-old Adam Kirkham came down with a nasty rash of red pustules, according to Cobb County health department records.
“It looks almost like chickenpox,” said his father, Scott Kirkham, who filed a complaint with the health department. “We were really concerned.”
Back home in Tennessee, Adam was diagnosed with folliculitis and given antibiotics, Kirkham said. The bacteria that causes the rash is often associated with poorly maintained spas and pools.
The only pool the boy had been in was at the Atlanta Inn & Suites, which also goes by the name Magnuson Hotel-Atlanta. The family stayed there July 10-12 during a trip to visit the children’s museum and the Georgia Aquarium.
When a Cobb health inspector investigated Kirkham’s complaint on July 22, the pool was closed for maintenance. There was no chlorine in it and the water was so cloudy the main drain wasn’t visible. Because the hotel had not kept logs of its tests for chlorine and pH, it was impossible for the inspector to check what the chemical levels were on the day the boy swam, the investigation report said. It passed a reinspection on July 29.
In August 2008, the pool was cited for having no chlorine. Cobb inspectors closed the pool April 9 for pH problems. The pool failed a reinspection the next day for the same reason. It passed a third inspection on April 14, the last before the Kirkhams stayed there.
Jay Panchal, a co-owner of the hotel, said in an e-mail that the hotel uses a professional pool maintenance company, but he declined to comment further.
Hotel pool violations
While many hotel pools and spas pass all their inspections, records show critical violations at others.
Inspectors found no chlorine in the pool at the Hyatt Place on Venture Parkway in Duluth when they tested it June 11. Hyatt officials said a “brief pump malfunction” caused the problem. It’s been fixed and the pool passed two follow-up inspections.
DeKalb inspectors closed the pool at the Atlanta Marriott Perimeter Center on April 14 because it lacked chlorine. It was allowed to reopen two days later, records show. A Marriott spokesman said the hotel tests the water twice daily and that the readings showed the water was fine the night before the inspector arrived. The pool has had no further problems, he said.
The pool at the Holiday Inn-Atlanta Northeast on Clearview Avenue has failed four inspections since May 28 for water chemistry problems, including low chlorine and high pH. Most recently, DeKalb inspectors closed the pool Aug. 5, citing low chlorine and pH.
The spa at the Courtyard by Marriott-Peachtree Corners in Norcross has been closed twice this year by inspectors. On July 21, the spa was cited for having an extremely low level of chlorine and a pH level that was too high. On May 29, its pH was too high, a condition that reduces the killing power of chlorine.
The Motel 6 on Panola Road in Lithonia failed three inspections in June and was ordered closed each time when inspectors detected little or no chlorine in the water. Motel manager Dipen Patel said the problems were caused by faulty automated equipment, which has been replaced.
Use your senses
Check it out
If you suspect a health or safety problem at a public pool or spa — or believe you’ve been sickened at one — contact your county health department.
For more tips, go to http://www.cdc.gov/healthySwimming/
How we got this story
The AJC used the Georgia Open Records Act to request pool and spa inspection and closure data from the health departments in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. All counties provided data, except Fulton, where officials said their computer system did not allow data to be exported.
Each county records data differently, making a comprehensive analysis difficult.
Gwinnett’s data itemized 289 instances where inspectors closed pools and spas in 2009, the reason for the closure and whether they passed or failed follow-up inspections. They included 75 closures for no chlorine and 97 for chlorine levels that were too low.
Cobb’s data covered 2,456 inspections in 2009, including 88 instances where pools or spas were closed for critical violations. Pools were recorded as failing 461 inspections and the “fail” code sometimes also indicates a closure, county officials said.
DeKalb’s data had inspection scores but didn’t record whether the pool had been closed for critical violations. The AJC was able to identify some closed pools by manually searching online inspection report information.
After reviewing the data, the newspaper reviewed copies of inspection reports for certain facilities. The Open Records Act also was used to obtain copies of state outbreak investigation reports.
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