Still waters: Why the Allegheny County Health Department inspects 560 public pools for violations
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The Allegheny County Health Department received a call a few years ago from a mother worried that her son's blue bathing trunks had been bleached pure white after swimming in a local pool.
For the health department, the concern wasn't about an affront to fashion, but about the possibility of eye irritation, burns to the skin, nausea and vomiting caused by swimming in too much chlorine.
Of course, not enough chlorine -- which can allow bacteria, viruses and parasites to thrive -- isn't good, either.
In short, swimming in bad water can make people sick.
That's why the county health department inspects some 560 public pools and hot tubs each year, including those in local communities, schools, recreational facilities, hotels and motels, apartment buildings and condominiums.
Overall, the department finds relatively few problems.
Still, over the last five years, an average of 50 pools or hot tubs have been closed each year for critical health code violations until the problems could be fixed, according to inspection reports obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through a Right-to-Know request.
Sometimes, problems can be addressed quickly and the pool or hot tub is reopened by the end of the inspection. Other times, the inspector leaves, instructs the facility to remain closed until the issues are resolved and plans a follow-up visit to confirm the fixes.
Besides bad chlorine levels, a facility can be closed to bathers for such things as bad PH readings, cloudy water and not having a lifeguard on duty.
Through the first eight months this year, there have been 47 closures in the county, including 39 pools, seven hot tubs and a water slide, inspection reports show. Nine of the pools were children's pools, referred to by the health department as wading pools, where -- because of the young age of the bathers -- it can be particularly important to get things right.
Twenty of the facilities that had closures this year, or roughly 40 percent, also were closed at least one other time during the prior four years, according to the reports. Among the repeat offenders with the most recurring problems were the Virginia Mansions condominium complex in Scott, Shannopin Country Club in Ben Avon Heights and Courtyard Marriott Pittsburgh Waterfront in Homestead.
At Virginia Mansions, health inspectors have repeatedly encountered problems with chlorine levels in both the pool and hot tub. In July, both were closed for having too much chlorine. Last year the hot tub registered zero chlorine during an inspection, while the pool had more than triple the maximum limit. Problems with high chlorine also were found during inspections in 2010 and 2008.
Representatives for the condominium association declined comment.
At Shannopin Country Club, problems with chlorine in the children's pool resulted in closures in four of the last five years. During an inspection in June, chlorine registered more than double the maximum limit. In 2011, the chlorine reading was zero. In 2009 and 2008, chlorine also was too low.
Without enough chlorine, swimmers can catch skin, throat and eye infections and intestinal illnesses, according to the health department.
Shannopin general manager Jim Corcoran said he couldn't comment on problems with the pool prior to 2011 because he wasn't with the club back then. "As for this year and last year, it's nothing more than a mechanical issue," he said. "It's being addressed and budgeted for and taken care of."
At the Ingomar Swim Club in Ingomar, the children's pool was ordered closed by inspectors for low or zero chlorine readings in three of the last five years, inspection reports show.
During an inspection in July, "The situation was corrected and the baby pool opened immediately thereafter," board member Craig Hammond said. He declined comment on previous years.
In August at the Courtyard Marriott, the chlorine was too low and the facility was cited for failing to notify the health department about high bacteria readings in the pool and hot tub. The department requires that water samples be sent to a laboratory weekly to test for bacteria and that results be reported if they exceed standards. Additional samples taken from the hot tub during the August inspection came back positive for staph bacteria, according to inspection reports.
The Courtyard's hot tub also was closed for low chlorine during an inspection last year and again in 2009, when the facility was cited for another half-dozen violations for failing to monitor the tub's chlorine and temperature levels.
The hotel's general manager did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Dave Namey, chief of the health department's housing division, which handles pool inspections, said swimmers should be "mindful" of chronic problems found during inspections.
Unlike restaurant inspections, the county does not post pool inspection reports online, but they are available through a Right-to-Know request.
"I believe you can ask for a pool's records" while at the pool, Mr. Namey said. "Maybe ask to see the water readings for that day."
Pool operators are required to monitor water quality regularly throughout the day and record results in log books, which are reviewed during inspections. They also must employ the services of a certified pool manager who oversees the facility, examines the logs daily and documents any corrective actions.
Allegheny County is one of only a few places in the state that requires a certified manager, Mr. Namey said.
The county also requires lifeguards, except at hotels, motels and condominiums.
Besides checking chlorine levels, health inspectors look for cloudy water and take PH readings, primarily for swimmers' comfort and safety, but also because disinfectants work better when the PH is in a certain range, according to the health department.
Water clarity is mainly a safety issue: Lifeguards need to see if anyone is struggling or lying at the bottom of the pool. Cloudy water also could indicate a filtration problem.
The county has the authority to issue fines and take legal action for repeat violations, but that's "very rare," Mr. Namey said.
If swimmers have concerns about conditions at a local pool, they should speak up, he said.
"If you suspect the water quality is not right, or you don't see a lifeguard on duty, or you don't see any lifesaving equipment at the pool side -- if you see anything you don't think is right, call us."
First Published October 7, 2012 12:00 am