The Crap Shoot Is your neighborhood pool making you sick?

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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.

Our Readers Say

This article reads more like a 7th grade science fair project than an investigative report. Why would you expect pool water to be held to the same standard for drinking water. The water is not meant to be consumed.
Actually, G, since the CDC says swallowing even a small gulp of water is one of the most common ways people get sick, the drinking water standards aren't irrelevant.

And, 1,000 CFUs is way above what the EPA wants to see before it approves pool disinfectant products. Before manufactures can market and sell their products as pool disinfectants, field tests must show that the
coliform bacteria did not exceed 200 colony-forming units in 85 percent
of samples taken at two or more pools over a four to 12 month period.
Christine is correct. This is absolutely a story worth telling for health purposes especially. Granted it could have been done in the spring rather than the end of pool season but still relevant. I don't want my child swimming in a dirty pool and gulping fecal bacteria.
Where the journalism here falls short is that there are two different tests here: one for bacteria and one for chemicals. And the distinction is important.

Pool staff test for chemical levels, usually produced by injecting the water with calcium hypochlorite (solid white tablets) or sodium hypochlorite (green liquid). The hypochlorite ion (ClO-) is a powerful oxidizing agent, meaning that it reacts easily with organic (and inorganic) compounds. For swimming pool purposes, that means the ClO- is killing bacteria it encounters. If the concentration of ClO- (measured in parts per million), the assumption is that the bacteria in the water will be unable to survive long enough to infect bathers.

But the journalist tested for bacteria levels, using a kit that can't identify concentration (other than yes/no to 1000 colony-forming units in a given volume, an important number which is left unrevealed to the reader). The test for bacteria ought to be accompanied by a test for chemical levels, to determine if the bacteria appear to be present in appropriately-chlorinated pools.

So for this article to have real value, the journalist should a) have done the homework necessary to understand the pairing of tests, b) compared the testing performed at DPR pools for chemicals to the testing from the commercially-available kit for bacteria, and c) written a thought-provoking article discussing the nexus between the appropriateness of the chemical testing vs. bacteria testing and the supervision of young lifeguards in low-wage seasonal jobs where public health is in the balance.

I would be interested to read such an article in the future.
R - I take issue with a few of your points:

We did the homework and understand the difference between chemical and bacterial testing. Here's a little more background, since you seem to want some:

The DPR pools, like many around the country, just do chemical testing. Why? Pool industry experts say laboratory tests for bacteria take too long - a day or two - to show results, during which time swimmers are at risk. But if you keep the chemical balance just right, it will kill off most pests.

But what if you screw up the chemistry one day? Well, one of the rapid bacteria tests we use would tell you that, so you could take measures - such as shocking the pool with an extra dose of chlorine - to kill the bugs before they make patrons sick.

I would also debate whether an article about "the nexus" of two types of tests would "thought-provoking" or just put readers to sleep. At any event, we weren't interested in an academic debate. We - and I'll going out on a limbo here and bet most readers - just wanted to know if it is safe to swim in the city's public pools. Our tests accomplished that objective.
Nothing on Marie Reed! That is the saddest pool in town. But I am a regular since it is close.
This was ALMOST a great article. Kudos for reminding readers who are also swimmers "to take a shower before jumping in." Where the article falls short is not just along the lines of what "R" wrote but also, the motivation for this.

Did WCP have a particularly bad time at a DPR pool that launched this inquiry? Did WCP get a tip that DPR pools are dirty or have waterborne viruses? To be fair, why were the other DPR pools (Rumsey, Dunbar, etc.) not evaluated?

Without answering these questions could lead even a casual reader to wonder if this is a precursor to an investigative DPR piece. I've swam in two DPR pools this summer (one you tested and another you didn't). Talking about the ambiance of a pool is one thing. Testing the water for chemicals and feces is another.
Yes there is poop in the water and yes a recent study says 1 in 5 people pee in pools too . Michael Phelps even said on a show that he pees in pools. Any time you have someone entering a body of water they bring in something and leave it behind ( that is why I never go in public hot tubs they are 1000 times worse than pools)I have been in the pool industry for over 17 years working on around and writing about pool and all aspects on them. RWIs are on the rise as bacteria becomes more resistant to chlorine ( much like antibiotics not working on types of MRSA staph)Crypto is a good example of that. the best way is to have a UV system added to the pool. It uses UV light, the radiation from the UV mutates the germs so they can not reproduce and die. The the best way to combat RWIs is to not drink the water and use a nose plug, shower before and after swimming, and do not swim if you have cuts. Swimming in a pool is safe if it has proper chemical levels.It is a lot safer than swimming in a creek or the Potomac. I invite you to go to any pool public or private and you will get the same results.

If you want a better story take a look at what is in DC tap water .Your readers will freak out more if they know what they drink and shower in.

Dunking yourself in common water has been a concern at least since the days of endemic poliomylytis. Do you want to seal yourself in a bubble or what?? For Chrissakes, handling money has contamination risks, too. And even using plastic has you at some point handling a pen or a keypad, etc. Hells bells, there is an officially allowable amount of RAT POOP in peanut butter. Carry around latex gloves, Sani-Wipes and Lysol and swab down everything you touch with blach if you want. Me, I'm gonna go swimming and not much worry about it. If someone experiences explosive darrhea in the pool, I am of course getting out, but otherwise you probably get less shit in the pool on Saturday than you get from your boss on Monday. So enjoy.
My neighborhood pool looks great, yet I hesitate to swim there....but this weekend I plan to swim in the Potomac, so I guess I am being silly about the hazards of pool water.
Not surprising.. and given the extraordinarily high reported rates of disease in DC (see numerous ads on busses and Metro stations) I wouldn't put my pinkie in any pool in this town unless it was my own maintained by me for my family.
Sorry Christine, I know you thought you were doing an investigative report, but the fact remains that your story is elementary at best.

I've been to several DPR pools and have been fine. Lighten up and take a dive.
I am concerned that DPR is not really run well. This is one issue. But recently my partner and I visited a DPR facility in Ward 6. We used the facility the first day including the weight room.

We came back days after at the same time and was asked to pay a 109 fee for a year to use the weight. This was a bit of a surprise but as I waited for the attendant to produce health forms and liability waiver--I saw all she wanted to do was sign us up at the additionally fee.

The weight room does not have an attendant. And you get the sense the staff are not gym staff they are public employees.

This was a little interesting to me because once you begin to charge ---the liability has changed and you better know maintenance and service requirements for owning and operating a gym. (I thought yoga at several commercial gyms--and know you have to understand liability and not sure they did.)

This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.
I'd like a conclusion as to whether or not the test strips really do the job. Is it possible that you could get a sense of assurance when the water is actually dangerous? A twenty minute, inexpensive do-it-yourself test would be a good deal for those of us with private water systems.
Thanks everybody for the lively commentary. Sorry if we didn't get to the pool in your neighborhood. I tried to get to as many as possible. But with deadline looming time just ran out.

As for Tom Stover's question about the accuracy of the test strips we used. We more can we say? There is a consensus that the rapid kits are no replacement for formal laboratory tests that involve culturing the water to find out exactly what is growing in there. But the strips do serve the purpose of providing an immediate snapshot of the water quality. If you get a positive result, you can quickly adjust the chemicals in the pool before anyone gets sick.

The most serious concern is that the strips may not be sensitive enough. Public health officials, like the CDC official quoted in the story, are most concerned that they could underestimate the presence of harmful bacteria. Fears that the tests could yield false positives came mostly from groups funded by the swimming pool industry, which has a vested interest in maintaining public confidence and making sure people are not afraid to into the water.
The swimming industry has an interest in maintaining public confidence? Or, perhaps they have an interest in selling more rapid bacteria test kits to people like you?

I still think your story is crap and far more sickening than any pool water could be.
Christine, thanks for the article.

No matter how elementary the testing was, it at least brings to light that there should be proper measures in place to assure DC's public pools are safe to swim in. I've been involved in environmental testing for years and can tell you that at best this shows a snapshot of what some "health" conditions were associated with the water on broadly based assumptions.

Really, it comes down to process, and if DPR can maintain the current accepted levels of chemical treatments for the pool water, then you can feel good about using this great resource. I swim several times each week and have used many pools in DC. I can say I've never gotten sick and appreciate the resource as one of the best things I get for my tax dollar.

PS I'd like to give "Spaulding" a shout out for that Caddyshack reference.
This was a good idea for a story and the people who did not like reading about this issue, should not have read the story. But I would have liked to hear how urine in pools is tested and accounted for. How the age and quality of the filtering system affects this problem and more about the normal testing process and cost of testing every hour and how consistent the results usually are over the course of a day. Are pools cleaner in the AM and do they become increasingly dirty through the end of the pool day. Ot are the results more random then that ?

I am going to use this story as evidence that end of year dog swim events are not introducing anything new in the pool that is not already there from earlier in the pool season.

WRZ ......
ccdogpark@ ..... .... ....

Wow Christine, you really offended the pro-poop lobby judging by these comments.

Good article.
Public pools are nothing but giant bathtubs and I refuse to swim around in another persons bathwater.

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