Everything You Should Know Before You Get Into A Public Pool This Summer
Nearly 8 in 10 routine inspections of public swimming pools turn up at least one safety violation, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control. The L.A. Times reports that the CDC statistics are culled from 84,187 routine inspections of 48,632 public pools and other “aquatic venues” in Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Texas (those five states account for 40 percent of the nation’s estimated 309,000 public water play facilities, hence the focus).
In light of these chilling revelations—and with summer fast approaching—we called up our friends at the County of Los Angeles Public Health Department to learn a little more about how L.A.'s public pools are regulated, and if we should be scared to get in the water.
The swimming pool is near inextricable from the idea of Southern California, mythologized a million times over, from the opening lines of Sunset Boulevard to the paintings of David Hockney, and in shimmering little grids through the plane window of anyone who has ever made their descent into Los Angeles International Airport.
Two women and a man in mid air after using a diving board at the Ambassador Lido pool in Los Angeles, California circa 1940's. (Photo by Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images)
By 1961, Southern California had more pools than anywhere else in the nation. Today, there are approximately 3,200 public pools in Los Angeles County (the number of private pools is infinitely larger, with totals estimated at 250,000—most of which are attached to single-family homes).
Those 3,200 public pools all come under the purview of the county health department's Environmental Health office, where a staff of 13 full-time swimming pool inspectors are employed. Along with the obvious public pools in city and county parks, that number also includes the swimming pools, spas, wading pools and special purpose pools at hotels and motels, public and private schools, health clubs, mobile home parks, resorts and organizations, medical faculties and water theme parks.
We spoke at length with a health department swimming pool inspector about what the inspection process is like, and what you should know before getting in the water.
According to the inspector, L.A.'s public pools are rated in three risk categories and inspected accordingly. Pools considered "low risk"—primarily residential pools at condos and apartment complexes, plus seasonal pools that are only open part of the year—receive an annual visit from the health department. The majority of L.A.'s pools fall into the "medium risk" category and receive twice-yearly inspections, including municipal and county pools, and pools at hotels and schools. Pools at water parks and health clubs are considered "high risk" and receive three visits a year.
According to the inspector, the health department checks for a long list of "code-relevant items," ranging from the built environment surrounding the pool (e.g. Is the concrete around the pool cracked? Are relevant signs in place? Are there any trip-fall hazards?) to safety concerns related to the actual water (the department checks chlorine and pH levels, along with the functioning of pumps and drains, among other things).
The inspector, who has been on the job for more than two decades, tells LAist that there are a number of health-significant violations that, if spotted, would lead to a pool being immediately shut down. According to the inspector, most of these would be visually apparent to a visitor and include a complete lack of chlorine (think very cloudy, yellowish water), an "inability to see the pool's bottom," broken glass in the pool and fecal accidents.
Yes, fecal accidents, which are unfortunately of great concern in the pool safety world. According to the inspector, the department usually gets several calls reporting fecal accidents at pools every year. However, said accidents are self-reported, so many go un-cited (and, presumably, un-superchlorinated) a year.
"A lot of the time, they don't get recorded because people don't want to incriminate themselves," she said. "That's how people are."
The department has a procedure in place for sanitizing a pool after a fecal accident, but there is no way to ensure that the procedure was followed if an incident wasn't reported.
"If we're not notified and called... you just never know," she said. "That's life in the big city."
David Hockney's "The Splash." (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
On another note, we regret to inform you that—despite the common misconception that chlorine kills all germs—it turns out that chlorine only kills most germs. According to the health department website, "a few germs can survive normal pool, hot tub, and spa levels of chlorine for several hours to days."The department's 13 swimming pool inspectors traverse the county, checking chlorination levels and water cloudiness from "Lancaster to Long Beach, and Pomona all the way up to the Boy Scout camps in the San Gabriel Valley." Their inspection findings can be found on their website, where they also maintain a very handy list of all the pools that have recently been shut down due to safety violations and if/when they will reopen. There have been 99 closures so far this year. Highlights include the Malibu Country Inn (closed 2/10/2016 to 2/12/2016), a duo of apartment complex pools on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood (both of which have yet to be reopened), the Boys & Girls Club of Pomona (reopened on 4/12/2016 after being closed for nearly a month) and the LA Fitness in West Covina (remains closed).
When asked if she had any tips for L.A. pool-goers to visually assess their favorite bodies of concrete-lined water before getting in, she told us that clear water is key. "You just want to make sure the water is turquoise and crystal-clear," she said. "A yellow cloudy tint means the chlorine is going, or gone.
As Joan Didion once wrote, "the symbolic content of swimming pools has always been interesting: a pool is misapprehended as a trapping of affluence, real or pretended, and of a kind of hedonistic attention to the body. Actually a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable. A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye."
However, according to the public health department's website, "Swimming is the equivalent of communal bathing. When you are in the water you are bathing with everyone else in the pool. Germs in contaminated water can get into your body if you accidentally swallow the water... Germs that get inside your body can make you ill."
So much for control over the uncontrollable.