Is your favorite swimming pool being inspected?
More than 3,600 swimmers took a dip in Rogers-McFeely Memorial Pool in Latrobe last year.
Located in downtown Latrobe, the community pool is one of 130 public swimming facilities in Westmoreland County.
Unlike ones in Derry, Greensburg and Youngwood, which were all last inspected by the Pennsylvania Department of Health in 2017, Rogers-McFeely pool hasn’t been inspected by the state since 2012.
“Now I’m a little uneasy,” said Craig Shevchik, director of Latrobe Parks and Recreation, a foundation that operates the pool. “If they were inspecting those pools, why wouldn’t they inspect mine?”
A Tribune-Review investigation found oversight disparities between counties that have a local health department to conduct safety inspections for the state, such as Allegheny County, and those that do not, like Westmoreland.
The Trib found the state no longer requires facilities to submit monthly water logs, weekly bacteriological reports or electrical inspections; nor does the state conduct annual inspections of the more than 7,300 public swimming areas in Pennsylvania.
The only public swimming facilities routinely inspected are those in cities or counties with a local health department.
State oversight is intended to catch maintenance lapses that, if left unchecked, could put the public at risk.
“What you would see is that the pool could become a focal point for an outbreak if it’s something that is frequented by the community and isn’t adequately maintained,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease physician.
With only six inspectors, Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle said the agency prioritizes inspections based on complaints, repeated water quality issues and violation history.
The Trib reviewed county and state inspection reports from 2015-18 for the 18 outdoor pools operated by the City of Pittsburgh, four operated by Allegheny County, seven community pools throughout Westmoreland County and swimming places at Sandcastle and Idlewild parks. Critical findings are those that could affect water quality or lead to other imminent safety hazards.
Among the findings:
* Of the seven large community pools examined in Westmoreland County, Rogers-McFeely is the only one that hasn’t had a state inspection in the past two years. The pool’s last inspection was seven years ago.
* About half of the 223 inspections of city and county pools in Allegheny County since 2015 found violations. About 43% of those violations were critical.
* At least two pools — Jack Stack in Pittsburgh’s Brighton Heights neighborhood and Bloomfield — were closed for a period during 2016 to correct water quality issues. About 20% of inspections of city and county pools in Allegheny County since 2015 found critical violations.
* Sandcastle water park had the most safety violations — a total of 67 violations across 11 pools — but had the smallest percentage of critical violations at 7.5%.
* North Park pools and Round Hill Spray Park in Elizabeth each averaged two critical violations each swim season since 2015. Pool attendance at North Park topped 40,000 in 2018, second only to the pools at Settlers Cabin Park, which boasted 60,000 visits. The county does not track attendance at spray parks.
* Ream, in the Duquesne Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and Settlers Cabin Park Wave Pool in Robinson reported bacteria levels at least twice the level considered protective of public health during incidents, both in 2015.
Water quality experts say summer temperatures, which cause chlorine to evaporate, and swimmer grime — tanning oils and lotion, hair products, sweat and urine — all conspire to work against the effectiveness of a pool’s disinfectants.
Kurt Huber, Citiparks Program coordinator and a 46-year veteran of the business, has seen things that would make most public swimmers cringe: tent worms setting up camp in a pool’s hair basket; landslides dumping debris into a pool after a wicked summer storm; soggy diapers long overdue for a change.
Most of the time, he doesn’t know what’s going to end up in any of the city’s 18 outdoor swimming pools, throwing off the delicate balance of chemicals required to keep pool water quality in check.
“The biggest issue we have is people coming to the pool and not bathing prior to jumping in,” Huber said. The hair products, deodorant or lotions patrons apply after a shower at home might smell nice, “but chemically, that’s an intruder to my pool,” he said.
This isn’t an issue only at Pittsburgh pools.
Nearly half of adults don’t rinse off before jumping in a pool, according to a recent survey conducted by the Water Quality and Health Council, an advocacy group that researches the effects of chlorine on water quality.
It’s not just dirt and sweat that impacts chlorine effectiveness, according to the group. Urine does also.
Roughly four in 10 survey respondents admitted to urinating in a pool as an adult.
“The reason you can’t pee in the pool is because you excrete nitrogen,” said Andrew Roberts, mission development manager at Pool & Hot Tub Alliance in Colorado Springs. “When you pee nitrogen into the pool, you’re using up the chlorine.”
Pool water in Pittsburgh is tested for chlorine and acidity once every hour during operating hours, Huber said.
This is important because proper pH levels — how acidic the water is — determine how effectively chlorine can attack harmful bacteria, like E. coli, that might grow in a pool.
Samples are sent to a lab weekly to test for bacteria, and additional testing is scheduled if issues are detected, he said.
Most water-related infections in pools come from unsanitary conditions, said Dr. Neel Shah, an infectious disease physician at UPMC.
The most common path to catching a waterborne illness is ingesting water contaminated with bacteria.
“It’s harder to get infected than most people realize,” Shah said.
Several outbreaks of waterborne illnesses were reported in the state from 2011-14, affecting spas in private residences and hotels, along with a public interactive fountain and a lake or reservoir in a state park, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records.
The most recent outbreak related to recreational pools in Pennsylvania occurred in 2016, said Wardle, of the state health department. He was not able to disclose where the outbreak took place or how many people were affected. None of the cases was in Southwestern Pennsylvania, he said.
The state health department’s southwestern district stretches across 11 counties, among them Allegheny, Butler, and Westmoreland. Its lone inspector carries a workload of 570 permitted facilities, compared with 12 inspectors in Allegheny County who share responsibility for 603 swimming facilities, with an average caseload of 50 each.
Inspectors conduct roughly 1,100 safety checks annually statewide, according to state health officials. In the southwestern district, inspectors conduct between 160 and 200 inspections.
The Trib asked for three years of inspection information on seven of Westmoreland County’s largest community pools. The state health department provided only 2017 state inspections for six of seven community pools and no electrical system reports, which are required by state law every three years.
The Trib also received reports from Idlewild Park’s SoakZone water park in Ligonier.
Palace Entertainment, which operates Sandcastle and Idlewild parks, did not return requests for comment.
In Allegheny County, pools are inspected by county health department inspectors annually. In some cases, pools get more than one visit.
“I don’t think you’ll find an inspection program as robust and rigorous,” said David G. Namey, who as chief of the Allegheny County Health Department’s Housing and Community Environment Program oversees pool inspectors.
Allegheny County has the only local health department in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Only five other counties (Bucks, Chester, Erie, Montgomery and York) and four cities (Allentown, York, Wilkes-Barre and Bethlehem) operate local health departments.
“This poses limitations to do all sorts of inspections, not just pools,” said Dave Dzombak, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s not a good situation.”
State House Health Committee Chairman Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, said, short of writing a query letter to state health officials, there is little to be done. Gina Cerilli, chairwoman of the Westmoreland County board of commissioners, said county officials have little sway to compel the state to conduct more frequent inspections.
“We have no muscle to actually have the state do it,” Cerilli said.
‘I wouldn’t want my kids swimming in a dirty pool’
Dozens of kids and families flocked to the Vandergrift Area Park and Pool on May 25 to cool off in the nearly 90-degree heat.
Tammy George, who called her annual pool membership a family investment, said she gives the water quality little thought. She’s confident it’s well maintained having seen staff conduct multiple water tests on her visits.
“I’m a mom, so I’d be pretty anal if something was wrong with it,” the Hyde Park mother of four children under 17 said. “I wouldn’t want my kids swimming in a dirty pool.”
Though it doesn’t happen often, George has seen lifeguards clear the pool and take care of issues.
An automatic system regulates chlorine levels, but pool manager Daisha Clayton still conducts a manual test twice a day to compare readings.
“If chlorine is too high, we immediately close,” she said.
Clayton, who has worked about 10 years at the pool, said she’s prepared for the annual inspections, keeping water logs and reports neatly filed in the front office, readily available for anyone to view.
“I’ve never had anyone ask for it,” said Clayton, adding that swimmers usually have more questions about the pool’s operating hours.