When 6-year-old Ethan Cory drowned at the Swimmin’ Hole waterpark in Joplin, Mo., this past summer, his parents filed a lawsuit against almost anyone who could be held responsible. They alleged that the water slide, under which Ethan had drowned, was a hazard, and the lifeguards were not properly trained.
But when the Corys tried to confirm their allegations through the
local health department, they discovered something disturbing. No
health inspector had ever set foot in the Swimmin’ Hole, nor
any other facility in the county. “We don’t regulate
anything right now,” confirms Bob Kulp, director of Newton
County Health Department. “You’ll find most health
departments have a hard time keeping up with what they’re
expected to do because they don’t have enough
So who in the government is watching out for the Corys and the rest
of the swimming public? According to a special Aquatics
International investigation, the answer in Newton County is the
same for a growing number of facilities across the nation: No
That’s because pools are only a fraction of a health
inspector’s job. Also called environmental health
specialists, the inspectors may spend a day checking day-care
centers, nail salons, nursing homes, tattoo parlors, restaurants,
hotels, campgrounds and swimming pools. Because inspectors tend to
be spread thin across all of those areas, pools fall to the bottom
of the priority list, leaving their operators as the only safety
Apparently, that’s not enough. More than half of all
inspected pools had health code violations ranging from water
quality issues to poor management, according to a 2002 study by the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the most
recent data available. Close to 10 percent were so bad, they had to
immediately shut down. That’s just for pools.
One of the fastest-growing segments of aquatics is waterparks. Who
should be inspecting those? Few local jurisdictions have the
answers. So these highly complicated rides on which users can
achieve speeds of up to 60 mph slip through government inspection
cracks, only to gain attention when a ride collapses and people get
hurt, or die.
As state and local budgets become even tighter, and government
agencies focus more resources on homeland security, experts say the
problem is likely to worsen. Not only will more pools be ignored,
but the few inspectors out there won’t have the training or
education necessary to spot problems before they become injuries,
or worse. Many aquatics veterans say this is especially worrisome
for the numerous hotel and apartment pools, where operators are
rarely trained or even on staff.
Aquatics experts say the problem is compounded further because,
unlike the restaurant industry, the pool industry is not governed
by a national code. Some jurisdictions don’t even have a
local code to follow. As a result, pools and waterparks are more
liable for injuries and illnesses because inspectors can’t,
or won’t, do their jobs. And when something bad happens, as
it did to the Corys, aquatics facilities end up shouldering the
blame — and the liability.
Inspecting the problem
That something was amiss became evident with the CDC’s 2002
study. It showed that more than half of operators failed to
maintain their pools at code, and put patrons at risk. It raised
even more questions about the many pools that go uninspected year
According to the study, 67.5 percent of all hotel and motel pools
had code violations; 26.9 percent of apartment and hotel/motel
pools violated proper chlorine levels, and 18.9 percent violated
proper pH. Both are critical to proper water quality.
Even more troubling is where these water quality violations were
occurring most frequently: children’s wading pools, which are
often the epicenters for recreational water illness outbreaks. Such
outbreaks in Utah this year have sickened more than 1,300,
prompting officials to take the extraordinary measure of banning
toddlers under age 5 from pools. Considering that almost 40 percent
of municipal facilities violated codes surrounding filtration and
recirculation, both of which are critical to healthy water, that
may be a prudent move.
Water quality and circulation can be handled by a certified pool
operator, but many pools aren’t run by trained
Indeed, 25 percent of pools were cited for having improperly
trained operators. Health inspectors are supposed to pick up where
aquatics operators leave off, a kind of safety spot- check for the
public. Aquatics experts say a code violation sometimes is the best
way to get the authority — and the money — to fix
problems. Tina Dittmar, aquatics supervisor for the city of Laguna
Niguel, Calif., says when operators are cited, it gives
“documentation for funding.” She says operators can
the paperwork to the city as proof that the pool needs something
fixed or added.
Kevin Johnston, former aquatics director at Washington State
University in Pullman, agrees that being written up is helpful.
“You can use the documentation to get funding with the
administration. It’s one way of getting stuff done,” he
says. “A health report will require you to make
Pools that go uninspected miss out on the opportunity to get
additional funding to fix a violation. So these breaches remain and
perpetuate until they become a serious problem and someone gets
It’s not that the inspectors are lazy. In many cases, they
don’t have the resources — and sometimes the authority
‐ to police these pools and waterparks.
“They’re not just doing pools,” says Michael
Beach, Ph.D., team leader for the CDC’s Division of Parasitic
Diseases. “They’re doing food and myriad things. People
are stretched pretty thin. We have to take our hats off to them
that with such limited resources, they do what they can do.”
Tracynda Davis’ department was so shorthanded that sometimes
pools weren’t inspected at all. “There’s not a
lot you can do with 4,000 pools and only 20 inspectors,” says
the director of environmental health
programs at the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado
Springs, Colo., who was formerly with the city of Madison, Wis.
“Some wouldn’t be inspected for years.”
Davis also headed up the state program for swimming pools, training
the local health departments and drafting new policies to ensure
that pools would be checked as often as possible. She says the
majority of states have similar programs, but she doesn’t
know how effective each one is.
Pools are also tricky because, unlike restaurants, many of them are
only open in the summer. Inspectors have to shift their schedules
to focus on aquatics without slacking off on other inspections that
continue year ’round.
In many cases, venues aren’t inspected at all until a crisis
occurs. In Oklahoma, it took a water coaster collapse at Big Splash
waterpark in Tulsa this summer to change policies. Before that,
waterpark rides and structures were never inspected. Water quality
was checked by the health department, and dry amusement rides were
inspected by the state Labor Department, but waterpark attractions
fell through the cracks.
When the ride collapsed with an 11-year-old girl on it, the state
took action. The Labor Department took over waterpark structures,
and began inspecting all the major waterparks in the state. While
the issue of inspecting waterparks had been debated for a few
years, nothing happened until the collapse.
The death of a man in 2005 at Sun ’n Fun waterpark in Ponca
City, Okla., had jolted the Labor Department to survey the state of
waterparks and many alarming factors were found, says Tom Monroe,
director of safety standards for the Labor Department. But even
after that, the issue was set aside until the recent Tulsa park
“There’s no doubt the accident at Big Splash …
brought attention to the fact [inspections] needed to be
done,” Monroe says.
In Missouri, pools are regulated by local jurisdictions, not state.
And, in cases such as Newton County, aquatics facilities
aren’t regulated at all, though Kulp hopes to change that
before next swim season starts — if he can find the
Cost of public health
Finding those funds seems to be the underlying issue plaguing
inspectors nationwide. “Lack of budget causes
problems,” says Alison Osinski, president of Aquatic
Consulting Services in San Diego. “You can’t get to
pools frequently enough. You don’t have modern equipment, and
you have no time for training.”
One reason for the squeeze is how pool inspections are classified:
They fall under preventive care rather than active response, says
Kimberly Thompson, Sc.D., associate professor at the Harvard School
of Public Health in Boston. It’s hard to prove that a
preventive program is effective when there are no real numbers or
data to prove it’s working.
“I think the main things is having [health departments] not
be constantly reacting to emergencies as opposed to
planning,” Thompson says.
Stephen Keifer, public pool specialist at the Oregon Department of
Human Services in Portland, agrees. “It’s difficult to
say you’re doing a good job if nothing is happening. ‘I
prevented 4,000 people from getting sick.’ How do you know
that? When you get into the legislature or decision-making bodies,
it’s really hard to argue for more money when you can’t
show that you’re doing a good job.”
In Brattleboro, Vt., several training programs were replaced by a
4-inch-thick manual due to budget cuts. And in Westchester County,
N.Y., pool inspections were reduced after 76 local health
department jobs were cut in 2003.
In addition, funding has funneled away from the bread-and-butter
programs of many health departments and toward post-9/11 emergency
preparedness, including bioterrorism and anthrax scares, Thompson
says. Other issues that have taken precedence are avian flu and
West Nile virus.
With the current economic state of the country, Beach doesn’t
expect the situation to improve anytime soon. “There’s
a large deficit in the United States. Lack of a federal funding
base is a huge thing,” he says. “There’s no
funding to send [inspectors] out from the federal level, and no
research for key questions.”
As a result, many health departments are feeling the squeeze. In
Illinois, it’s a constant challenge to keep the state pool
code up to date with current designs, and to educate the
inspectors, says Kevin Hoffman, director of member services at the
Park District Risk Management Agency in Wheaton, Ill. “The
budget cuts … really limit the services that are provided to
those licensed pools,” he says. “[Inspectors] come out,
do basic checks, but really can’t drill down too deep into
operations as much as they want to.”
It’s a scenario Osinski sees often, and she says it’s a
result of not having enough funding to be taken seriously.
“The pool operator has a $1,000 test kit and the inspector
has a $29.99 kit,” she says. “You have to provide them
with testing equipment that’s better than the
The same goes for salaries. Pay should correlate to the seriousness
of the jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s
Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual earnings of
occupation health and safety technicians were $42,130 in May 2004,
the latest data available. The highest 10 percent earned more than
$70,460, while the lowest 10 percent earned less than
Some areas budget for seasonal pool inspectors, whose job is to
focus on pools only through the summer. In Baltimore, those
inspectors are paid $9 an hour. In DuPage County, Ill., seasonal
pool inspectors working in the Chicago metro area were paid $9 to
$9.50 an hour in 2006.
These seasonal inspector positions require nothing more than a high
school diploma and driver’s license, and new hires go through
a basic training before setting out with test kit and clipboard.
For other health departments, full-time employees may not receive
much more training than that either, and may not have the education
“What we don’t know is the level of quality of training
in each department, when you look at the whole country,” says
Lachocki, CEO of NSPF. “[Inspectors] may not connect how
important a self-latching, self-closing gate is, or screws in the
main drain cover. They’re not always obviously intuitive as
to what the risks are.”
Like a cop who doesn’t know traffic rules, some pool
inspectors face professional judgment from operators who know more
than they do. “They have to bring a level of respect and
professionalism to their positions,” says Johnston, senior
instructor of recreation at the University of Idaho in Moscow. He
recalls that he knew more than his health inspector most of the
time. Though he had a good relationship with his inspector, he says
lacking knowledge of the code can cause conflicts between a
visiting inspector and an operator.
Tom Griffiths used to lecture summer college interns who were
conducting inspections but had never worked for a pool before.
Putting a rookie before a veteran would be fairly daunting.
“It’s extremely hard to question someone who has been
running a pool for 25 years,” says the director of aquatics
and safety officer for athletics at Penn State University.
Because inspectors are checking such a wide variety of places in a
day, they face the challenge of switching expert caps on a
regular basis. Few specialize in just one type.
“There’s tremendous variety and it’s very hard
for them because of the number of
facilities,” Keifer says. “They might forget some
stuff, or don’t get an inspection routine established to make
sure [they] cover all these items on an inspection sheet. They
don’t do it enough.”
Keifer is the only one in his state department who specializes in
pools. He says some of the larger communities have pool
specialists, but most are spread across the other fields. The
inspectors are required to have environmental health or similar
college degrees and must pass the National Environmental Health
Association exam to certify them on a national level, in addition
to state-level certification.
His inspectors are not required to take an operator certification
course, though many do. That way, they can look at procedures on an
advanced level. “Instead of learning how to backwash a
filter, spend time learning what you must look for to make sure
it’s working right,” he says. “What do you look
for in a room when you only have 10 to 15 minutes to pass
In the past, a state association would organize instructors to
teach certification classes, Keifer says, but nowadays an
instructor has to take the initiative to organize it himself.
Seasonal employees come in when the full-time staff is too busy to
check up on pools. Aquatics experts are torn over whether
it’s better to send in a rookie with a high school diploma,
or to forgo the inspection altogether.
“Having uneducated or unknowledgeable inspectors out there
inspectingis not the right answer, but not inspecting at all is not
an answer either,” NSPF’s Davis says.
Beach says having someone out there is better than not having
anyone at all. “Whenever we know we are accountable for how
we run the pool, knowing we’ll be checked is always a good
thing,” he says.
But even if they are being checked, what are they being checked
against? That question frustrates many aquatics operators, who
point out that the industry lacks a national code or federal agency
to mandate pool regulation.
Unlike the food industry, which is heavily regulated by the Food
and Drug Administration, the closest federal program is the
CDC’s Healthy Swimming initiative. However, the CDC is not a
enforcement agency for pools. Because there’s no federal
governing body, many codes — if they exist at all —
differ greatly across the board, from state to state, county to
Another problem is that while the aquatics industry is changing
rapidly, local codes are not. Only when an emergency occurs will
regulations be updated, such as in Lake Geneva, N.Y. After the
cryptosporidium outbreak at a local spraypark sickened thousands,
state officials enacted emergency codes requiring all public
sprayparks to be either spray-to-drain or equipped with an
ultraviolet system that could zap the parasite.
Even more confusing, pool inspections are handled by different
departments across the country. It could be any one of these
departments: public health, environmental conservation,
environmental health, agriculture or labor. In some cases, multiple
departments handle the pool, such as Oklahoma’s system, where
the health department checks water while the labor department
checks slides and structures.
And within the departments, inspections are not always
standardized, or organized either. Osinski has become accustomed to
receiving files of chicken-scratched inspection notes when asked to
be an expert witness. “I get files with a hundred violations
on the same thing, but a different inspector each time,” she
says, noting that the inspectors often don’t check the last
inspector’s notes to see if there are repeat
Suggesting a solution
A joint project between the CDC and NSPF aims to address at least
part of this problem. The two groups are working with existing
codes and aquatics experts to create a national code that local
jurisdictions can adopt.
While the code is being created, aquatics operators can do their
part by reaching out to their local pool inspectors. “Having
that cooperative approach and realizing [inspectors] can help you
and you can help them is a lot more valuable than knocking heads
hard every time on your pool deck,” Johnston says.
Many inspectors prefer to remain strictly professional. Dittmar
says her inspectors come in, don’t talk to anyone, sign the
forms and leave. Others are more talkative, which helps managers
and inspectors learn better. Charlie Case, program director at the
Flint YMCA- Pierson Road Branch in Flint, Mich., says his inspector
drops by unannounced once a year and will walk with them through
the pool area and filter room. “Generally, it’s pretty
businesslike, but at the end he’ll ask how the Y is going in
general,” he says.
Griffiths tells of encountering an inspector who went beyond her
checklist to make suggestions, such as using striping on steps to
be safer. He says that Pennsylvania, where his pool is located, has
“very little in our health code regarding pools. Doing health
inspections is a breeze because they’re looking at very few
This partnership can help operators and inspectors learn from each
other. The inspectors then can take the knowledge gained at the
municipal pool and apply it at smaller hotel and apartment
To maintain a sharp staff, Griffiths suggests hiring college
interns who are majoring in environmental health rather than pay
someone $9 an hour to inspect pools. Working for academic credit is
taken more seriously by the student than the wage, he says. Then
the student will gain more industry experience and have something
valuable for his or her résumé, while the health
department has someone better qualified to perform
Lastly, educate the public about its responsibility to help keep
pools up to code. Post signs, hand out pamphlets and hold workshops
to teach patrons how to keep the pools clean, to alert staff of any
problems and to communicate with each other.
“We need … to push on consumers to take part as
well,” Beach says. “It has to be a three-way deal with
the public health department, aquatics staff and consumers to
maintain pools as well as they can be.”