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Water illnesses are a growing concern at local public pools

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Posted: Monday, July 26, 2004 10:00 pm

Some 600 swimmers competing in the Lodi City League Championships on Saturday at Tokay High School pool had to get out of the water.

A fecal accident in one of the warm-up pools led to the pool's closure and evacuation. The championships resumed Sunday at Blakely Park's Enze pool complex.

With more people swimming during the summer months, incidents such as these are surprisingly common in public pools, operators say.

Although they rarely cause serious health problems, water quality at apartments, hotels, city pools and Lodi Lake is a concern among many parents and swimmers who use them.

Those pools, as well as the lake, experience a heavy amount of use by bathers in the summer who leave behind soap, body oils, sunblock and other substances that dirty public swimming areas, said David Rogers, the owner of a pool cleaning business that services commercial pools locally.

Contamination problems make pool maintenance and proper chemical levels that much more important, he said.

In a recent sampling of county swimming pool inspections records for 17 public and semipublic pools, the News-Sentinel found 12 had violations relating to chemicals or filtration.

Saturday swimming

Saturday in Lodi, health and safety regulations called for evacuating the warm-up pool at Tokay High School where a "decomposed" fecal substance was spotted, Lodi Parks and Recreation Director Tony Goehring said.

It was uncertain where the matter came from, but swimmers' family members may have let their children use the pool, he said.

"For the most part people understood there was a chemical problem. All they were concerned about is getting out of there and continuing the meet because they worked hard all summer," Goehring said.

Since the pool is not under Parks and Recreation's supervision, he said Lodi Unified School District maintenance was contacted to sanitize the pool. The maintenance office did not return calls about this incident Monday.

A similar incident happened at the Gora Aquatics Center in Galt last week.

There was a fecal accident in the small pool during a swim class and a vomit incident in the larger pool, both in the same afternoon.

"This usually happens once a week or every other week, but not both pools in a day," said Monica Lopez, the recreational supervisor.

Potentially 300 to 400 people use the pool per day, she said, depending mostly on how hot it is outside. But last week with temperatures in the mid-90s, Lopez said many patrons were upset over the total closure of the center.

"Usually people thank us for taking them out of that situation, but some people don't understand," she said.

Rising tide for water illness

The U.S. Census estimates that some 360 million visits to recreational water sites yearly, making it one of the most popular exercise activities in the nation.

At a glance
California Health and Safety Codes have requirements for pool chemical levels. Here is a list of the most common terms:
• Cyanuric acid is a stabilizer used in conjunction with chlorine that protects it from ultraviolet rays so that it can continue to be effective as a water purifier. Too much cyanuric acid could lessen chlorine's effectiveness.
• Free chlorine ("good" chlorine) is available to oxidize foreign substances in water.
• Combined chlorine ("bad" chlorine) has combined with substances like sweat, ammonia and nitrogen and has lost its effectiveness.
• Pools must maintain pH levels, which test the acidity or alkalinity of a substance, between 7.2 and 8.0.
• If cyanuric acid is used, chlorine must be in levels of 1.5 ppm (parts per million) and above. 10 ppm is a recommended limit.
• If it is used without the stabilizer (cyanuric acid), chlorine must be in levels of 1.0 ppm and above.
- News-Sentinel staff

But the Centers for Disease Control has reported that recreational water illness outbreaks have increased since the 1980s, sometimes with deadly results. In 1998, two children died after contracting the bacterial virus E. coli from a Six Flags water park near Atlanta.

The CDC launched a campaign this summer to help prevent swimmers from getting sick from recreational water illnesses.

Recreational water illnesses are contracted by swallowing or coming into contact with contaminated water in pools, hot tubs, lakes and oceans, the CDC says. The most common illness is diarrhea.

Swimmers who are ill with diarrhea can easily spread the illness in the water if fecal germs come into contact with other swimmers. The CDC reports that swallowing even a small amount of germ-infected water can make you sick.

"A lot of people don't think of swimming as a shared water experience," said Christine Pearson, a spokeswoman for the CDC in Atlanta.

The agency is asking people to be aware of the water they're swimming in. If it doesn't look right, don't hesitate to ask a pool manager or call local inspection officials, she said. CDC officials urge swimmers to avoid swallowing recreational water, avoid swimming if you have diarrhea, bathe thoroughly and practice good personal hygiene.

"Swimming is wonderful and we certainly don't want people to stop swimming, but just be smarter about it," Pearson said.

Chlorinated water doesn't necessarily protect you, either.

Cryptosporidium, a parasite that causes diarrhea, can live in chlorinated water for a week and giardia, another parasite, can live in chlorinated water for 45 minutes.

"People think if they smell chemicals in the pool it's OK, but that typically means it's not well-maintained," Pearson said.

The chemical smell is from combined chlorine, chlorine which has combined with other agents and has lost its effectiveness.

The most recent data collected nationwide by the CDC during the 2002 swimming season revealed that 54 percent of pools had one or more local health code violations; 8 percent of the pool inspections necessitated an immediate closure. These violations could facilitate the spread of illnesses, the report said.

A majority of spas and hot tubs were also found in violation. Nearly 57 percent of public spas had at least one violation and 11 percent were closed due to violations.

Still waters run ill

Ashlee Guthrie doesn't know exactly what is in the water at Lodi Lake, but she knows it's not all good.

Lodi Parks Supervisor Duane Wright oversees the levels of chlorine and acidity in the water of the pool at Enze Field and Pool Complex at Blakely Park on Stockton Street, as well as other public swimming areas. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

"Because I grew up here, I know it's not the cleanest, and I know they've had problems in the past. I don't know about now," she said as she watched her four children, ages 4 through 9, splash in the water one recent summer afternoon.

"We actually don't allow them to put their heads under the water in the lake," she said.

The risk for contracting an illness can be greater in natural waters because they are not filtered or disinfected.

Water in Lodi Lake comes from the Mokelumne River and remains in the manmade lake only when the Dam operated by Woodbridge Irrigation District is in operation from March to October.

"It doesn't sit there stagnant, though," said Frank Beeler, assistant water superintendent with Lodi Public Works Department. However, he said there have been no serious attempts to measure how often the water is circulated.

Every Monday, two samples from the beach area are tested for bacteria levels. Average levels cannot exceed a 200 fecal bacteria count per 100 milliliters of water. The most recent testing data available was done on July 6 and showed a 66 count of fecal matter bacteria.

"What has caused problems in the past, our investigations have lead us to believe, might be the geese," he said, adding that the fowl leave their droppings on the beach and in the water.

Raking the beach, skimming the swimming area daily and fencing out the geese with orange snow fences have helped dramatically to keep bacteria levels low in the past two years, he said.

The wading pool at Lodi Lake is of particular importance because the CDC reports that young children may be in diapers and swallow water indiscriminately.

The wading pool at Lodi Lake is circulated and chlorinated. Even the red mushroom that spouts water out its top is there for a purpose: It aerates the water.

Lifeguards and posted signs require that waders rinse off in a shower before entering the 1-foot pool in order to keep it clean.

A clean pool is a happy pool

Another popular location for swimmers in Lodi is the Enze pool complex at Blakley Park.

Lodi Parks Supervisor Duane Wright tests the pH levels in a pool at Enze Field and Pool Complex at Blakely Park on Stockton Street on a recent afternoon. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Pool workers estimate that 60 swimmers use the two public pools on Thursdays and Fridays, based on admission fees. (The pool is closed Monday through Wednesday due to budget cuts.)

Weekend figures are higher, with about 130 using the pool on Saturday and Sunday. The smaller pool where swim lessons are held sees around 200 children a day in the water.

Lodi's Parks and Recreation Superintendent Steve Dutra oversees the wading and beach areas at Lodi Lake as well as the two pools at Blakely Park.

An automated system senses how much chlorine to put in the water, he said. However, it's not fool proof, which is why Park and Recreation Department workers check the levels three times a day.

Higher air and water temperatures and increased numbers of people in the water all cause the chlorine to be used up faster, he said.

Lifeguards help keep the pool clean by recommending patrons take showers in the pool area restrooms before entering to rinse off any body oils, tanning oil or sun block. Dutra said. Theoretically, it will keep the water cleaner longer, he said.

Some Blakley pool patrons said their children never shower before swimming.

"I was never told that, nor do I see any kids who are wet get in the water," said Mindie Hooley of Lodi, who was watching 8-year-old daughter Kaitlyn swim.

Most parents at Blakely are not concerned about the quality of water there.

Kristina Vargas, of Lodi, holding 2-year-old nephew and watching her 7-year-old daughter in the public pool, was one of them.

"I really hadn't thought about it," she said.

Arla Nelson, of Lodi, was sitting on a bench as her 6-year-old son was getting swim lessons, said, "I'm not concerned. I think they take care of the pool real well."

She has also told her son to be mindful of how to behave in the water.

"He knows he's not supposed to drink, potty or spit in the water."

Water by the numbers

Indeed, public records show that the Lodi pools are fairly clean and well-kept. The News-Sentinel obtained the San Joaquin County Environmental Health Department's most up-to-date records for a sampling of 17 pools in Lodi - five city-operated, nine apartments and three hotels or motels. All but one had at least one violation.

However, those violations were mostly minor ones, such as not posting pool hours or having cracked deck drains. However, some were health- related, such as the presence of algae, improper chemical levels or an inadequate filter system.

"Sometimes we show up, and we can't see the bottom of the pool," said Mark Barcellos, a supervisor with the county Environmental Health Department, which performs the annual inspections.

Pools are written up for violations, most of which can be fixed on the spot, he said.

Blakely Park's Enze pool was the only inspection that showed no major violations.

Most of the apartments surveyed and all of the hotels had violations involving filtration or chemical levels.

For example, The Fountain Apartments on Sylvan Way was written up for not taking daily readings. However, Manager Danielle Shelton said the records were lost at the time of inspection and eventually found.

Managers from the Sandcreek Apartments and the River's Edge apartments, who did not want to give their names, gave no explanations for why their chlorine levels were too high, but said the problems were fixed.

High chlorine levels could cause adverse skin reactions, Barcellos said.

The Orange Grove Apartments and The Vineyards Apartments both had violations of high levels of cyanuric acid, a stabilizer that helps chlorine's effectiveness. Too much cyanuric acid could lessen chlorine's ability to purify water, Barcellos said.

Management at The Vineyards, which also had no daily logs, said the pool was under previous management at the time of the last inspection.

Orange Grove manager Eileen St. Yves said the increased level of cyanuric acid, which does not dissipate, was due to an old pool lining which was recently replaced.

Another apartment complex at 310 S. Ham Lane, previously called the Villa Camelot Apartments, showed black algae and low free chlorine levels. The pool was closed until levels were corrected. There is currently no listing for the complex in the phone book.

El Rancho Motel's report said the filtration system was turned off at the time of inspection. A manager there, who did not want to give his name, said he did not know why it was off on that date.

Managers at the Royal Host Inn were not available for comment on their inspection report, which also showed that the filtration system was turned off.

Kim McClellan at the Hutchins Street Square pool, said maintenance crews check the pool three times a day and shock it once a week. The county's inspection report said that combined chlorine levels were too high.

Maintenance crews at Tokay High School, where last year's inspection showed black and mustard algae, said the pool is vacuumed each week and cleaned daily.

If swimmers are concerned about using public pools, Barcellos recommended carrying chlorine test strips available at pool supply stores.

Dirty pool clues

Rogers, the owner of Complete Pool Service, has been maintaining residential and commercial pools for 20 years. He's seen a lot of dirty water.

Some pools are neglected all winter and develop a coat of algae. Others have a mushy layer of leaves. Many have a hazy film of oils floating on the surface.

But public pools are by far the worst, he said.

"Cloudy water is the first thing you see when a pool starts to get sick, and in public pools you see it quicker than anywhere else because of the bathing load."

He has also been called out to deal with fecal and vomit accidents, usually at semi-public pools, which are open to a select group of people, like apartment tenants or hotel guests.

"I'm sure every kid under the age of 5 has peed in the pool. That's not a health concern. But fecal matter is different," he said.

Contact reporter Michelle Miller at intern@lodinews.com.

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