Feature Article - April 2006
Find a printable version here

Safe Swimming

Managing risk at aquatic facilities

By Kyle Ryan

Clean water

Although they're sometimes treated as two different issues, water clarity and waterborne illness do overlap. Pathogens in the water can affect water clarity, and water clarity can reflect how much junk is in it.

"There's not a whole lot that are dying due to pool water chemistry," Griffiths says. "To me the biggest problem with poor water chemistry or pool operators is cloudy water. When you can't see the bottom, there's no excuse for that."

Suction entrapment may seem like it has the monopoly on horrifying stories, but cloudy water has more than a few of its own. Osinski cites a birthday party in Los Angeles where a little boy disappeared. The county spent $500,000 on manpower to search for the child, released an Amber alert and spent two days trying to find him. Turns out he was right there all the time—at the bottom of a pool whose water was too cloudy. He spent two days underwater.

"If you can't see the bottom of the pool, the main drain, the pool needs to be shut down, no ifs, ands or buts," Dworkin says. Considering the scope of the L.A. county tragedy, that rule sounds pretty reasonable. So does Griffiths' guiding principle: the more chlorine, the better.

"People are frightened of chlorine," he says. "I tell most people who come to me for swimming-pool operation, whatever you keep your chlorine at now, raise it 0.5 parts per million. To me, more is better, again from several different perspectives: a water-clarity issue, a water-safety issue and a water-quality issue that is killing all the bugs and germs in the pool."

Those bugs and germs have seemingly made more headlines these days, especially when it comes to cryptosporidium and E. coli. After an E. coli outbreak at an Atlanta waterpark in 1998, Six Flags mandated chlorine levels at all of its parks be kept between 3.2 and 3.5 ppm. Children in diapers also must wear special swim diapers.

"No matter how much we don't want to think of it, swimming pools are public bathing," Osinski says. "The only reason it doesn't look like your bathtub when you get out when you're grungy is we're doing something about this. We're adding chemicals, we're moving the water, we're filtering the water."

The threat comes from pathogenic organisms (E. coli, cryptosporidium) and organic contaminants (waste). A formed-stool accident requires a little less vigilance than one that involves diarrhea, but both need to be treated seriously by trained pool operators. The easiest way to avoid all of this is to have trained pool operators, but that's a bigger challenge than it should be.

"The majority of pool operators out there who are not trained don't have the skill to do that," Osinski says. "They don't know how to maintain 20 parts of chlorine for eight hours and how to take the appropriate readings."

Splash play areas are at a particular risk for pathogens (as well as slipping, tripping and eye injuries) because some manufacturers often sell them to facilities by saying they don't require supervision. That's not true. Last summer, Osinski says there were three major outbreaks of waterborne illnesses in her area, and that directly comes from a lack of water-chemistry vigilance. She also thinks the number of outbreaks hasn't really changed—just knowledge of what they are. Dworkin agrees.

"In the past where we've seen people that we think may have been as an example hepatitis, it turns out to be cryptosporidium or something," he says. "The testing has improved, the awareness of the hospitals has improved, so the diagnosis has improved."