As of Aug. 13, nearly 162,000 people had alighted on 19 outdoor public pools managed by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. That’s a lot of cannonballs, a lot of lifeguard warnings, and a lot of competition for chaise longues.
It’s also a lot of feces.
Most people have about 0.14 grams of feces on their bottoms that, when rinsed off, can contaminate recreational water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That accumulation presumably derives from sloppy wiping habits, and if it’s to be trusted, D.C. pools have potentially hosted as much as 23,000 grams—or 50 pounds—of feces this summer. And that doesn’t even count the contributions from infants wearing porous swim diapers.
Even without the CDC’s precision on trace butt feces, we all know that John Q. Public is a dirty guy. Just look at most public restrooms: Without constant janitorial intervention, they’re sties.
And thus the challenge facing the staff at D.C.’s public pools. The facilities are open every day, their turnstiles stampeded by a population of overheated urbanites generally oblivious to their 0.14 grams of underside contamination. Many—actually, most—of them ignore the signs imploring them to take a shower before jumping in.
How could the pools possibly come clean in the face of this bacteriological onslaught?
With a lot of chemicals. According to the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), staffers at city pools check the water hourly. The Department of Health had conducted 70 pool inspections through July; it shut down no public facilities and five private ones (the names could not be determined by press time). “In all of the inspection reports that DPR has received from the Department of Health all levels of chlorine have been at expected levels to protect the public,” says DPR spokesperson John Stokes. “We understand the importance of protecting the public and have worked together with the Department of Health to reduce the risk of waterborne diseases.” For DPR staff, monitoring bacteria is every bit as important as scanning the water for sinking swimmers. Left untreated, the pool water can cause diarrhea, eye infections, skin rashes, and other infections that can even lead to death. That’s right; people have died from waterborne diseases caught at swimming pools. It hasn’t happened in the District in recent memory but the CDC says a few people die and there are thousands of non-fatal instances of Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, norovirus, and E. coli infection.
Though DPR’s swimming facilities have plenty of signage apprising bathers of the pool’s rules and regulations, there’s no sign to update patrons on the germ count. Meaning that every time you take a dip, you’re putting your health squarely in the hands of DPR and its corps of very young lifeguards.
Is that a smart gamble? Over two weeks in midsummer, Washington City Paper conducted bacteria tests at 24 city-run pools and three private pools in the District. Measurements were taken using Watersafe Bacteria Test kits made by Silver Lake Research, a Monrovia, Calif.–based laboratory that sells the tests primarily to public pool, spa, and water park managers.
The test kit is designed to scan the water for pseudomonas, E.coli, species of Aeromonas, Shigella, Enterobacter, Klebsiella—but not viruses and parasites that can also cause sickness.
Here’s how the test works: You dip the plastic dropper into the shallow end of the pool and squeeze a dropful of water into a plastic vial. Gently swirl the vial and watch the red-colored chemicals dissolve. Let it stand for seven minutes; swirl again. Place a test strip into the vial. Wait 10 more minutes. If only one line appears on the strip, the pool tested negative. But if two lines appear, the test is positive for bacteria.
The second line might be faint or dark. But even a faint one means a whole lot of colony-forming units of bacteria were found in the pool water sample.
“Nobody can tell you at what level you’ll get sick or get a rash. The real value of this test is it’s telling you at least 1,000 colony-forming units of bacteria are present,” says Tom Round, Silver Lake’s vice president of business development.
Considering that the Environmental Protection Agency defines drinking water as contaminated if it contains a single colony-forming unit of fecal coliform bacteria such as E.coli, the presence of 1,000 units is reason for caution, Round says.
“When you get a positive result it means it’s important to stay out of the water” until the pool can be disinfected, Round says. A negative result, meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily mean no harmful bacteria are in the pool, he added. It just means they haven’t reached a level detectable by the company’s 17-minute test.
The efficacy of the kit is by no means a matter of consensus in the pool-water-purity community. Some experts say the kit could yield false positives and cautioned that it’s not nearly as accurate as a professional lab analysis; others had the opposite concern—that the kits may underestimate the bacterial threat. “They are a bit of a black box. It’s not clear to us how sensitive these tests are,” says Michele Hlavsa, an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases. “I would fear they couldn’t pick up enough of the bacteria and would give a false negative.” Whatever the accuracy of the on-site tests, a pool that comes up positive for bacteria one day can be clean the next, if it is properly treated.
Now for the results: More than one in three pools tested came up positive for bacteria that could cause “recreational water illnesses.” Among the pools that tested positive were some of the newest and most attractive public facilities and one at a popular hotel that hosts weekend pool parties with a celebrity chef. Tests were completed at 16 large outdoor DPR pools; six kiddie DPR pools; two indoor DPR pools; and three private pools. That’s a total of 27 pools at 21 sites.
The following is a facility-by-facility breakdown:
1800 Anacostia Drive SE
Test Result: Positive (Friday, Aug. 7, 5:31 p.m.)
Skinny: This pool has one of the nicest, newest, cleanest women’s locker rooms. It also has nice, new white lounge chairs, blue and white umbrellas, and a stellar location near the Anacostia waterfront.
2500 Georgia Ave. NW
Test Result: Positive (Saturday, Aug. 8, 3 p.m.)
Skinny: The Banneker pool across from Howard University is a mirror of its location. It’s near enough to Shaw, Petworth, and Columbia Heights to draw swimmers from all three neighborhoods. There’s hardly any shade here and few of those jumbo beach umbrellas in abundance at other locales.
1223 Sumner Road SE
Test Result: Negative (Friday, Aug. 7, 4:44 p.m.)
Skinny: No need to use the door when you can slide through the unlocked chain-link fence at Barry Farm. That’s what I did, and the lifeguards didn’t give me a second glance. Despite the casual door policy, this pool and the nearby wading pool both passed the bacteria tests.
Southern Avenue and Fable Street SE
Test Result: Positive (Friday, Aug. 7, 6:18 p.m.)
Skinny: It’s all family fun and teenage romances at the Benning Park pool. When I visited, loads of parents and their kids were swimming, laughing, and generally having a good time. The lifeguards were apparently living it up as well—somewhere else: There was not a single guard in sight during my first 12 minutes poolside, despite the dozens of swimmers. A ruckus could be heard from inside the staff office.
Capitol Skyline Hotel
10 I St. SW
Test Result: Positive (Thursday, Aug. 13, 2:45 p.m.)
Skinny: The $10 entry fee buys you a day at the pool, complete with the hipster ambience of this refurbished D.C. landmark. On Sunday afternoons, the hotel management sweetens the deal: For the same 10-spot, you get a complimentary burger grilled by celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn, plus cut-rate cocktails. As to the positive result, Jeff Ragonese, the hotel’s general manager, says that “pool is testing just fine from our end” and notes that testing is done every day on an hourly basis.
972 Ohio Drive SW
Test Result: Negative (Friday, Aug. 7, 1:45 p.m.)
Skinny: Like most DPR pools, this one inside East Potomac Park is a no frills experience. But the beautiful location, overlooking the Washington Channel, south of the Tidal Basin, makes it worth the trip. Another plus: The snack bar at the golf course next door means you don’t have to worry about your lunch getting soggy from the gantlet of shower nozzles blasting chilly water that you must pass through to get to the pool. DPR’s second busiest pool, East Potomac is one of the few we visited with a forced shower policy.
Ridge Road and Burns Street SE
Test Result: Negative (Friday, Aug. 7, 7:11 p.m.)
Skinny: You have to wonder how city officials allocate the lounge chairs and umbrellas. There’s nary a chair or a shade-maker at the Fort Dupont pool, but there is a nice vibe made by friendly lifeguards and happy kids.
25th and N Streets NW
Test Result: Negative (Saturday, Aug. 8, 1:27 p.m.)
Skinny: A clean test is an enormous tribute to the management at Francis, which is locked in a sultry death match with East Potomac on Hains Point for the distinction of being the busiest swimming hole.
Harry Thomas Sr.
1801 Lincoln Road NE
Test Result: Negative (Sunday, Aug. 9, 5:40 p.m.)
Skinny: If healthy bacteria levels correlate with serious lifeguards, then the Harry Thomas Sr. pool is a case in point: These staffers kept eagle eyes on swimmers and deftly managed challenges from a large and boisterous group of middle school boys. But it’s a good thing that the test kits don’t measure the stench in the women’s locker room (raunchy).
4300 Anacostia Ave. NE
Test Result: Positive (Sunday, Aug. 9, 3:36 p.m.)
Skinny: Kenilworth’s pool house is crumbling and musty, and its chaise lounges look more like cheese lounges. All of that could be forgiven if only the water had tested well.
Mills Avenue and Hamlin Street NE
Test Result: Positive (Sunday, Aug. 9, 5 p.m.)
Skinny: This pool’s test results indicated the most intense buildup of colony-forming units of bacteria that we came across. But it also had by far the worst lifeguard behavior in the entire DPR cohort. The three young guards on duty were more interested in flirting and roughhousing with one another and some of the teenage swimmers than in keeping an eye on the packed pool.
4th Street and Mississippi Avenue SE
Test Result: Negative (Friday, Aug. 7, 3:32 p.m.)
Skinny: Another DPR pool with loads of kiddies living it up in the water while their mothers reclined on chaise longues in the shade of a decrepit pool house.
South Capitol Street and I Street SW
Test Result: Negative (Friday, Aug. 7,
Skinny: This DPR facility appears all the shabbier due to its location across the street from the Capitol Skyline Hotel’s celebrated dipping spot. But the water tested clean.
1701 Gales St. NE
Test Result: Negative (Saturday, Aug. 8,
Skinny: This is only one of two pools (East Potomac was the other) that require bathers to pass through a room with shower nozzles running at full tilt. Perchance the forced showering helped the pool test negative for bacteria despite dozens of swimmers on a scorching hot Saturday afternoon?
300 Van Buren St. NW
Test Result: Positive (Monday, Aug. 10,
Skinny: Takoma’s indoor pool is
popular with early-morning lap swimmers. But the women’s locker room was dirty and smelled rank; the jumbo and wading pools tested positive.
Theodore Hagans Jr.
3201 Fort Lincoln Drive NE
Test Result: Positive (Sunday, Aug. 9, 4:19 p.m.)
Skinny: Flanked by an entire neighborhood of spanking new town homes, this pool, inside Theodore R. Hagans Jr. Cultural Center, looks a lot spiffier than it tested.
1100 Michigan Ave. NE
Test Result: Negative (Monday, Aug. 10, 7:47 a.m.)
Skinny: This gleaming indoor pool facility has older swimmers of every shape and size taking advantage of the lap lanes.
4300 Arkansas Ave. NW
Test Result: Negative (Saturday, Aug. 8, 2:15 p.m.)
Skinny: Upshur is running a distant third—behind Francis and East Potomac—for attendance this summer, though that’s no excuse for the substandard conditions in the women’s locker room. Overflowing trash bins and clogged toilets—all against a backdrop of, hey, clean pool water!
3400 Volta Pl. NW
Test Result: Positive (Saturday, Aug. 8, 12:36 p.m.)
Skinny: The Volta Park Recreation Center in Georgetown is another one of DPR’s showplaces. The locker rooms are modern and clean. And the nice, if small, pool has a big following among well-heeled professionals, neighborhood university students, and Georgetown soccer moms with kids in tow. If you want to snag a lounge chair on the weekend, get there early.
Washington Marriott Wardman Park
2660 Woodley Road NW
Test Result: Negative (Thursday, Aug. 13, 2:06 p.m.)
Skinny: Once you find your way through the Marriott’s cavernous lobby, a garden path leading under trellises of flowering vine leads you to the patch of turquoise paradise. But it’s a busy paradise, where neighborhood sunbathers and lap swimmers cough up $10 a day to mingle with hotel guests. Of the three hotel pools we visited, this is the only one with its own locker room—complete with showers and a sauna. The women’s locker room was a mess, though the pool tested clean.
Washington Plaza Hotel
10 Thomas Circle NW
Test Result: Negative (Thursday, Aug. 13, 11:26 p.m.)
Skinny: You get good water in a pool surrounded by a half-moon of blue beach chairs on white concrete. You also get a cushy cotton pillow, towels, beach umbrellas of the same royal blue as the chairs, and a view of the statue in Thomas Circle. In other words, not nearly enough indulgences to justify the $50 fee for a day pass.