When officials in Charleston, S.C., heard that their state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control was going to start enforcing its lifeguard standard this year, they immediately closed half of the Martin Luther King Jr. Pool. That’s because the South Carolina DHEC  code requires one guard per 2,000 square feet of pool. That means the Martin Luther King Jr. Pool needs five guards at all times.

At one time, all aquatics professionals might have agreed with that standard. But today some experts say dictating the number of guards based on a set parameter such as square footage may not be the best way to ensure safety. It doesn’t take into account unique shapes and design features or recreational amenities such as slides or play equipment.

But without any other code to turn to, operators at the Martin Luther King Jr. Pool were forced to take such a drastic step because they couldn’t afford to fully staff it based on stipulations that don’t necessarily represent an aquatics best practice.

Currently, approximately 3,200 state and local health departments follow separate codes (assuming they even have them) just like the one in South Carolina. Some codes are up to date, generally in states such as Florida, California, Texas and New York  — but many may be a decade or more old, passed down from one incarnation to the next. Few make any mention of newer aquatic amenities such as waterpark attractions and sprayparks.

“I think in many ways the health departments throughout the United States have just sort of bumped along with an ‘it was good enough in the ’50s, it’s good enough now’ attitude,” says Beth Hamil, vice president, corporate compliance, at DEL Ozone in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Hamil is part of a group of volunteers trying to change all that with the Model Aquatic Health Code. The MAHC project is an ambitious — and potentially controversial — effort to eliminate the patchwork and establish one single uniform set of aquatics operations standards.

The goal is to help clarify gray areas and create solid recommendations grounded in science and data. According to the MAHC Website, it “will serve as a model and guide for local and state agencies needing guidance to update or implement standards governing the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of swimming pools and other treated recreational water venues.”

“The hope is that those jurisdictions with antiquated codes, or no codes at all, will adopt the MAHC,” says Carl Nylander, chairman of the MAHC Facility Design and Construction Technical Committee and project director atCounsilman-Hunsaker, based in Saint Louis.

Unlike the federal Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, implemented in 2008, the Model Aquatic Health Code is not a law so operators won’t be required to comply until such time as it is officially adopted in their states. The hope is that creating a single standard will help clarify best practices, which will translate to safer, healthier aquatic operations.

Certainly everyone can stand behind increased safety, but following the introduction of the VGBA, some in the industry appear nervous about the idea of more federal rule-making. Many operators had difficulties complying with the VGB Act for a number of reasons and, according to an unscientific poll of Aquatics International readers, 41 percent say they are “concerned that [MAHC] will be another federal code debacle like VGB.”

As AI Connect member Greg Narramore writes, “How many aquatics professionals in the public sector have been involved or consulted? My Internet search seems to be none of us!  We need to bring our voice forward! ... This is VGB x 1,000.”

Experts say many differences exist between MAHC and VGBA. But once in place, the MAHC has the potential to become a powerful tool in litigation against pool operators and facilities.

While no one can be certain exactly what the MAHC will mean and what the practical impact will be until it’s complete, one thing is clear: This is very likely to be a watershed moment for the aquatics industry. 

The nuts and bolts

A similar tipping point occurred in the retail food industry in 1993. That year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration introduced the first Model Food Code, which became the industry’s first real set of standards, based in science and supported by all parties involved. Since then, some version of the Model Food Code has been basically adopted by all 50 states and, with the support of the Conference for Food Protection, it’s updated regularly to account for new information and technologies.

“It has been a very successful model for maintaining food safety to the highest levels in the world,” says Charles Otto III, captain, USPHS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NCEH/Environmental Health Services. Otto helped organize the Model Food Code and now that work serves as a blueprint for the MAHC.

The hope is that MAHC will do as much for aquatics as the food code has for the food industry.

The MAHC project all started with a bug. In 2005, the CDC sponsored a workshop on recreational water illnesses that set a course for potentially big changes in aquatics. Led by Dr. Michael Beach, CDC’s associate director for healthy water, the workshop aimed to inform attendees about the growing problem of cryptosporidium in commercial pool environments. Health experts and aquatics professionals came together, and it was clear that to tackle the problem of RWIs, a big move — a model aquatic health code — was needed.

Thus far, the MAHC project has involved countless hours from a corps of volunteers, many of whom are leaders in aquatics and public health. It will apply to all man-made recreational and therapeutic water venues, with the ultimate goal of improving health and safety. Key issues expected to be included in the final draft include specifics such as responding to a fecal accident and lifeguard training. The established framework covers 12 distinct areas:

  • Water quality
  • Contamination
  • Facility maintenance and operation
  • Hygiene
  • Lifeguarding/bather supervision
  • Monitoring and testing
  • Operator training
  • Design and construction
  • Recirculation systems and filtration
  • Regulatory programs
  • Risk management/safety
  • Ventilation and air quality

Each module is developed by a designated technical committee made up of individuals from various perspectives, including manufacturers, health officials, aquatic designers, and facility operators. Once each section is complete, it undergoes review by the MAHC Steering Committee and then a public comment period lasting 60 days. Anyone who’s interested can view the modules up for comment and provide feedback at the CDC’s Website. An outline of what the completed MAHC is expected to look like also is available on the Website.

The entire project is scheduled for completion sometime before summer 2011 swim season. Once a final version is finished, a process for regular revisions will be established, similar to the revision process for the Food Code. The plan is for new updates to be incorporated every two years.

Safety through science

The overarching goal of the MAHC is to make pools safer by providing a ready-made framework of information for agencies without the resources to complete scientific data assessments and attend trainings, according to Doug Sackett, director of the MAHC project and assistant director, New York State Department of Health Bureau of Community Environmental Health & Food Protection.

That type of framework is sorely needed, says Alison Osinski, Ph.D., principal/owner of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego. Osinski can point to at least one code that requires certification courses that don’t exist anymore and another that requires all pools use cyanuric acid. (The Independent Pool & Spa Service Association explicitly suggests cyanuric acid not be used in indoor pools.)

To add further confusion,  Nylander notes, “You’ll even get different interpretations from different reviews in the same location.”

The MAHC will help remove these kinds of issues because recommendations will be strongly rooted in current science and data rather than “the way it’s always been done.”

“Science-based regulations are held in high regard by officials and operators alike,” says Tracynda Davis, director of environmental health programs for the National Swimming Pool Foundation and an MAHC Steering Committee member who also serves on multiple technical committees. “For example, when the FDA rolled out the Model Food Code, it provided minimum cooking temperatures for raw meats. The annex provided the science behind the new cooking temperatures. The temperatures were no longer an argumentative issue; operators and officials adopted them because everyone now understood the reasons why the regulation required what it did.”

That kind of understanding is what’s needed to help move health departments forward in their efforts to update codes, says Colleen Maitoza, supervisor with Sacramento (Calif.) County Environmental Management Department and a member of the MAHC Steering Committee. “We’ve been trying to revise the [California] pool code for at least 20 years,” Maitoza says. “We’re looking forward to the MAHC development and helping our state in updating codes.”

Even with the MAHC in place, changes take time. And though the MAHC does provide a framework, Maitoza points out that it’s likely going to be at least a few years before any states adopt new codes or change existing codes. In some cases, that’s due in part to the fact that codes are updated on a regular schedule, perhaps every five or 10 years, so nothing will be done until that time comes.

Legal questions

But that doesn’t mean operators should ignore the MAHC until then. Experts say that because it provides another body of fact-based information, it has the potential to become a key document in litigation.

Pool operators who comply with the code will be able to use MAHC in their own defense; however, if an incident arises at a facility that does not meet the standards set forth in the MAHC, experts agree, it’s very likely to become a tool for the plaintiff.

“We lawyers always want to know how decisions were made, what sources of information did you consult and why did you conclude that what you did was appropriate,” attorney Bruce Clark says. “If it is plain that there was good information that was ignored, that will be used against an entity when something bad happens. Ignorance is never a useful defense.”

Aquatic cases are generally built on proving negligence. In a court of law, that means proving prevailing standards were followed as one piece to building a case.

“The elemental question is: ‘Did you act reasonably under the circumstances?’ Since many states lack comprehensive aquatic regulations, having a national model code could become the practical standard,” adds Clark, a principal in Seattle-based Marler Clark, who is currently involved in what’s considered the first aquatic-related class action lawsuit.

Strange changes

So what about the fears that the MAHC might become another VGBA?

“Change can be difficult and can cause stress for many people,” Davis says. But she and other experts involved strongly believe operators won’t find the same challenges with the MAHC as they did with the VGBA.

Unlike the VGBA, the MAHC is being designed to take an incremental approach that is “evolutionary not revolutionary.”

This means everyone involved in drafting the code is taking into account what’s possible for existing pools vs. what should apply only to new construction, according to Sackett.

“We’re trying to be as practical as possible,” Hamil adds. “If it can’t be reasonably done in a real world application, then no one will follow it.”

To help ensure that the MAHC is realistic and reasonable in scope, such as the Food Code, it’s being created with input from all interested parties. This includes health officials, academics, pool operators, facility designers, equipment manufacturers and aquatic consumers.

“Because the process is built with all the interested parties … the different knowledge and viewpoints are represented,” Sackett says. 

Otto sees the participation across the board as a kind of system of checks and balances, meaning no one opinion or perspective will be over-represented. This will allow focus to remain on creating a set of standards that is supported by scientific evidence and is practical for real-world application.

Moreover, because the entire MAHC will be available publicly online throughout the development process (and once it’s completed), all aquatics professionals have the opportunity to weigh in with opinions by participating in the public comment periods.

“Good operators who are well-informed should not be surprised [by anything in the code],” says Dewey Case, a member of the MAHC Lifeguarding and Bather Supervision Technical Committee and aquatics

director at YMCA of Southeast Mississippi.

Ultimately, time will tell regarding the impact of the MAHC. In the end, Sackett says, “I hope that we accomplish what we set out to do, and that’s to establish a code that’s defensible from a science and engineering standpoint and embraced by everyone involved.”

Sackett has at least one supporter in Kathleen Wilson. “I think the coherence of something like [MAHC] would be very helpful,” says the Charleston City Council member and longtime swimming enthusiast. “It could create a really good blueprint.”


TIMELINE

February2005

CDC-sponsored workshop "Recreational Water Illness Prevention at Disinfected Swimming Venues" is held in Atlanta. A recommendation from this workshop is the development of uniform, national standards for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of swimming pools and other treated recreational water venues.

May 1,2007

A 10-member Steering Committee is established to begin planning and oversight of MAHC development and to coordinate the activities of the technical committees. The MAHC project is initiated with the assistance of a grant from the National Swimming Pool Foundation.

2007 -2008

Framework for MAHC project is established, including a project outline, document outline and list of modules, and technical committee topic areas.  Steering Committee holds monthly conference calls and twice annual in-person meetings. Outreach is initiated for people interested in serving on an MAHC technical committee.

August 2008

The first technical committee conference call is held (Disinfection & Water Quality TC). 

October 2008

The first MAHC modules are posted on the MAHC Website for public comment: Preface, User Guide and Definitions, and Fecal/ Vomit/ Blood Contamination Response Module and Annex.

December 2009

The last of 12 technical committees is up and running, following ongoing work on modules by other technical committees and reviews of the technical committee module drafts by the Steering Committee.

July 2010

The first Technical Committee Module, Operator Training is posted on the MAHC Website for a 60-day public comment period.

VIRTUAL CONFERENCE

The aquatics industry is embarking on one of the biggest projects in its history: the Model Aquatic Health Code. The MAHC has the potential to affect every aspect of facility operation and design. Aquatics professionals have an opportunity to help shape what the code will ultimately say, but only if they get involved.

Aquatics International is hosting a special virtual conference to help you fully understand MAHC, its many ramifications — and how you can make your voice heard in the process.

The conference debuts Nov. 9 and is FREE to attend. For more information or to sign up, go to aquaticsvirtualconf.com.