It wasn’t until the health inspector started putting on a hazmat suit that it really hit me: This was not just another fecal contamination. Earlier that mid-August morning in 2008, we had gotten a call from the state health department that our pool was the focus of a
A quick but tense conference call with the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention provided instructions on how to collect the
samples to determine if the pool was contaminated with
cryptosporidium. But now that the health inspector had his
marching orders, it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. For his own
inspector requested a hazmat suit complete with gloves and facial
protection. Though the hazmat suit made the inspector more
comfortable, that wasn’t the case for the staff or the
curious citizens on hand to watch him walk out. I remember having
to calm one patron down when she saw what was happening.
The truth was, I needed calming down at this point, too. I kept
asking myself, “How could this have happened?” The pool
under investigation wasn’t just any pool; it was the premier
facility for the city of Albuquerque, N.M. It had been voted the
city’s best pool in 2008. The indoor 50-meter pool seated
1,000 and hosted dozens of meets throughout the year on multiple
levels: high school, college, USA Swimming Masters, to name a few.
In fact, we had just had a major competitive swimming meet that
brought in thousands of competitors. The entire facility was a
popular hangout for families, with 500,000 people visiting the
three-pool venue every year.
I had my best-trained, top-notch staff working here. We did regular
in-service training, had strict record-keeping and used the best
water quality management systems available.
We took regular bather counts and spot-checked the water chemistry
throughout the day. I thought we were doing everything right.
I thought I was doing everything right, too. After all, I had 17
years of aquatics experience. I was a certified lifeguard trainer
and pool operator. I had published aquatics research. I was the
aquatics chair of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education,
Recreation & Dance, and on the board of the National
Drowning Prevention Association. I held a Master’s in
Sports Science and was working toward my PhD. I loved the water,
had been swimming since I was 5 years old.
Yet this invisible pathogen, this parasite, was testing all my
knowledge, challenging my skills, calling into question my
authority as well as my standing as an aquatics professional. It
was also costing me money in lost pool hours and refunds that the
public had started demanding. Was it something we had done? Could
it have been prevented? Who was to blame? How could we have
I got no solace from the health officials. They were cooperating
with us, and I was grateful for their assistance, but it still felt
like they were breathing down our necks. They wanted information
and records dating back nearly four months, including chemical
logs, policies and procedures, lifeguard certifications,
filter-room chemical inspections, and analysis of our reagents and
testing kit. Basically, anything we had in writing, they wanted to
see. And even that wasn’t good enough. Where were our bather
counts in relation to water quality checks? Why wasn’t our
information collected on one sheet? The implication was that we had
done something wrong, or at least not right. I felt as if I were
under the gun to get them what they needed. Time was the enemy now
and every second was crucial.
By late afternoon, my immediate concern was the facility and my
staff. We still had a long day in front of us. After the samples
were collected, I called a meeting that was probably one of the
most serious I’ve ever had. No one was smiling or laughing.
They were worried about getting blamed, scared of being fired. They
wanted to know how this happened and who was at fault. What happens
All I could do was tell them what I knew, and how we were going to
move forward. Today, that meant hyperchlorinating (aka
superchlorinating) the pool. Our protocols called for
hyperchlorinating the bathrooms as well. But as an extra precaution
because crypto is so insidious, the CDC and our health
officials recommended that we hyperchlorinate the entire facility
— bathrooms, locker rooms, decks, walls, bleachers. Every
surface of the facility had to be sprayed down. We used a
high-power pressure washer and I told my staff to pretend like they
were painting. At one point the fumes got so bad, we all had to
step outside for fresh air.
While my staff and I were disinfecting the facility, a press
release had gone out to the media alerting them to our
crypto connection and creating a whole new kind of
infection. Sending out a press release is standard procedure.
It’s the health department’s best way to get the word
out and to limit the outbreak. But that release turned a positive
crypto connection into a full-fledged health and public
It wasn’t just our facility or even our city that was being
affected. Swimming pools ranging from the northern to the southern
part of the state (over a 400-mile area) were closed for
In no time, information about confirmed cases spread like wildfire
through the state, and later we discovered this outbreak reached
national alert status. Several pools were involved, including a few
out of state. Most of the affected pools were related to
competitive swimming events, according to the investigation
conducted by our environmental department.
It was difficult to point out the origin of the outbreak due to the
number of activities conducted at various pools in different
states. Because one of our pools was involved in this incident, we
definitely wanted to take
action and take a proactive role.
But we were not prepared for the media attention this incident
received. Some of our local media sources reported that our
aquatics staff was responding to a chlorine-resistant parasite with
a chlorine treatment. The way the information was presented only
led to more concerns and confusion in the community, while other
media outlets were becoming very critical of our aquatics
Fortunately, city officials from Parks and Recreation and
Environmental Health were able to hold interviews with the local
media to clear up some of the misunderstandings and help give the
public confidence in our water treatment. In one such interview,
the media were taken through the swimming pool’s mechanical
and chemical rooms while we discussed our treatment and sanitation
After our initial closure and media coverage, public inquiries
concerning crypto through phone calls, e-mails and visits
were overwhelming for several weeks after the incident was
reported. A great number of our patrons were angry and wanted
refunds — even for events that were held more than four
Other citizens were demanding the city pay their doctor bills and
medication expenses because they went for checkups, even if they
didn’t have an official lab test that confirmed
I felt we had lost the public’s trust.
But I was determined to win it back. We started by holding meetings
with our various swim coaches and swim clubs to discuss ways for
them to help prevent RWIs, and how to engage in much safer swimming
habits. We updated protocols, record-keeping and best practices to
better prepare for and prevent another crypto incident. We
participated in an aquatics meeting at our local American Red Cross
chapter to review our action plans for intervention in the event of
future outbreaks. We strengthened communication between our pool
managers throughout the Albuquerque metro area. We began a public
information campaign to teach patrons what they need to do to help
us keep crypto out of our pools for good.
Reflecting back at the challenges our community faced in August
2008, we believe that quick action and cooperation from federal,
state, local and private industry professionals helped keep the
crypto outbreak from growing.
As we get ready for a new year and a new season, I know we still
have a lot of work left to do to earn back the public’s trust
and patronage. But I’m confident the lessons we have learned
from this crypto outbreak will make our facility, staff
and city better prepared for the next time.
The most important thing my ordeal with crypto taught me
is that you can try to prevent it from happening, but you need to
be prepared for the worst.
Brandon Gibson contributed to this article.