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From Online Newsletter September 2009

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hundreds of public swimming pools and spas in the Atlanta area have been closed for critical health violations this summer, conditions that potentially put bathers at risk of catching waterborne diseases.

While many pools pass all inspections, inspectors found no chlorine in the water at least 75 times — just in Gwinnett County.

Proper chlorine and pH levels protect swimmers against infection by bacteria and parasites, but area inspectors regularly issue citations for critical water chemistry violations and temporarily close pools run by apartments, condos, neighborhood associations, hotels and gyms.

Some pools and spas have been cited repeatedly, inspection records show, raising questions about how consistently the water is maintained when the inspector isn’t there.

“If the facility is run by the ignorant or the apathetic, that’s usually a problem,” said Tom Lachocki, chief executive officer of the National Swimming Pool Foundation, a leading trainer of pool operators.

“Fortunately, most of the illnesses one can get in a pool are not catastrophic,” he said. “But you don’t go to the pool to get diarrhea or a rash or sore eyes.”

Nobody knows how often people are sickened in Atlanta or nationally; most illnesses go unreported.

“Traditionally when people get a GI [gastrointestinal] illness, they think: What did I eat last night? We don’t tend to think about our pools,” said Michele Hlavsa, an epidemiologist in the healthy swimming program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Over the past few years, the CDC has received more reports of outbreaks associated with recreational water use at pools and water parks. Individual reports of people being infected with the parasite cryptosporidium, which often is associated with pool outbreaks, are up dramatically.

Concerned about lax pool maintenance, the CDC recommends swimmers always test the water themselves before diving in, whether at outdoor pools in the summer or year-round indoor pools. Simple test strips — purchased inexpensively at home improvement stores and pool supply shops — change color to show the pool’s chemistry and whether it’s safe.

A pool inspector may only check the pool one to three times a year, Hlavsa said. “I wouldn’t want to put my young child in a pool if I didn’t know it was well maintained,” she said.

Children’s wading pools, because of their shallow depth and smaller quantity of water, are more prone to water chemistry problems. Yet keeping chlorine and pH at proper levels is especially important in pools frequented by children who may have what the pool industry calls “fecal accidents.”

Inspection records reviewed by the AJC show chemistry problems at a range of pools and spas.

● The kiddie pool in Cobb County’s Sheffield subdivision failed five of its seven inspections since June, records show. Home-owners association treasurer Diane Ellicott said a pool vendor had difficulty getting the chlorinator adjusted properly. A neighborhood volunteer tests the water daily, she said, and the vendor comes twice a week to perform maintenance.

● At the Christopher Robbins subdivision in Cobb, the wading pool failed three of its four inspections in June and July because of water chemistry problems, records show. Scott Inglis, treasurer of the homeowners’ association, in an e-mail called the violations “very small incidents” and said the pool management firm reacted appropriately so the pool could reopen.

● Three pools at the Bexley Apartment Homes in Marietta failed most of their inspections this summer, records show. Violations included problems with water chemistry and missing safety equipment. Officials at Fairfield Residential, which manages the complex, didn’t grant an interview.

● In the Gwinnett County active adult community of Brookhaven at Sugarloaf, inspectors twice closed the pool after tests on June 11 and July 8 found no chlorine. In each case the water was corrected and the pool allowed to reopen in a day or two, records show. Thomas Olson, chief operating officer of Jim Chapman Communities, said the chlorine was diluted by heavy rain in June and an equipment malfunction caused the problem in July. Olson said his firm’s staff only tests the pool’s water every other day and the pool company comes weekly.

● The spa at Bally Total Fitness on Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross was closed by inspectors three times from March through May for water chemistry problems. It passed two recent inspections, then was cited for low pH in July. Bally didn’t respond to interview requests.

● The Mall of Georgia’s spray pool — a series of water jets children often play in outside the food court — was ordered closed July 6 by an inspector after a test showed the water had no chlorine and the pH level was too low. Joe Piccolo, manager of the Gwinnett County mall, initially refused, records show. It was allowed to reopen the next day. Inspectors cited it again on July 24 for low pH. In an interview, Piccolo noted that the fountain has been in place for a decade and only started being inspected by the county last year. “We inspect it twice daily and it’s not unsafe to anybody,” he said.

For a study published last year, CDC researchers sampled water at 160 Atlanta-area pools to see how many were contaminated with cryptosporidium and another diarrhea-causing parasite, giardia. They found one or both of the parasites in 8 percent of the pools. Although the sample size was small, researchers said the results suggest contamination may be relatively common in some pools.

Since 2001, Georgia’s health department has confirmed seven pool-related outbreaks: one each at a camp, school and hotel; the rest were at subdivision pools or private homes.

Georgia’s best-known waterborne outbreak occurred in the summer of 1998 when 26 children were sickened by a strain of E. coli bacteria after playing in the kiddie pool at White Water Park in Marietta. Seven of the children were hospitalized; one died. A state investigation found the chlorine level was too low. The outbreak raised awareness about the importance of proper chlorine levels.

Today, large water parks and aquatics centers tend to have well-trained staff that pay close attention to water chemistry, health officials said. White Water passed all its inspections in 2009, health department data show.

But when it comes to pools and spas at places like apartments and hotels, the training can vary. “The person running the pool is probably responsible for a hundred other things. People tend to underestimate what it takes to run a pool well,” Hlavsa said.

After swimming in a Smyrna hotel pool last month, 3-year-old Adam Kirkham came down with a nasty rash of red pustules, according to Cobb County health department records.

“It looks almost like chickenpox,” said his father, Scott Kirkham, who filed a complaint with the health department. “We were really concerned.”

Back home in Tennessee, Adam was diagnosed with folliculitis and given antibiotics, Kirkham said. The bacteria that causes the rash is often associated with poorly maintained spas and pools.

The only pool the boy had been in was at the Atlanta Inn & Suites, which also goes by the name Magnuson Hotel-Atlanta. The family stayed there July 10-12 during a trip to visit the children’s museum and the Georgia Aquarium.

When a Cobb health inspector investigated Kirkham’s complaint on July 22, the pool was closed for maintenance. There was no chlorine in it and the water was so cloudy the main drain wasn’t visible. Because the hotel had not kept logs of its tests for chlorine and pH, it was impossible for the inspector to check what the chemical levels were on the day the boy swam, the investigation report said. It passed a reinspection on July 29.

In August 2008, the pool was cited for having no chlorine. Cobb inspectors closed the pool April 9 for pH problems. The pool failed a reinspection the next day for the same reason. It passed a third inspection on April 14, the last before the Kirkhams stayed there.

Jay Panchal, a co-owner of the hotel, said in an e-mail that the hotel uses a professional pool maintenance company, but he declined to comment further.

Hotel pool violations

While many hotel pools and spas pass all their inspections, records show critical violations at others.

Inspectors found no chlorine in the pool at the Hyatt Place on Venture Parkway in Duluth when they tested it June 11. Hyatt officials said a “brief pump malfunction” caused the problem. It’s been fixed and the pool passed two follow-up inspections.

DeKalb inspectors closed the pool at the Atlanta Marriott Perimeter Center on April 14 because it lacked chlorine. It was allowed to reopen two days later, records show. A Marriott spokesman said the hotel tests the water twice daily and that the readings showed the water was fine the night before the inspector arrived. The pool has had no further problems, he said.

The pool at the Holiday Inn-Atlanta Northeast on Clearview Avenue has failed four inspections since May 28 for water chemistry problems, including low chlorine and high pH. Most recently, DeKalb inspectors closed the pool Aug. 5, citing low chlorine and pH.

The spa at the Courtyard by Marriott-Peachtree Corners in Norcross has been closed twice this year by inspectors. On July 21, the spa was cited for having an extremely low level of chlorine and a pH level that was too high. On May 29, its pH was too high, a condition that reduces the killing power of chlorine.

The Motel 6 on Panola Road in Lithonia failed three inspections in June and was ordered closed each time when inspectors detected little or no chlorine in the water. Motel manager Dipen Patel said the problems were caused by faulty automated equipment, which has been replaced.


● Another microscopic parasite that lives in the intestines of infected humans and animals. It is found in water, food, soil and on surfaces contaminated by feces. It can survive outside the body for months.

● People are infected by swallowing the parasite, often in contaminated water.

● Symptoms, which begin one to two weeks after infection, include diarrhea, gas, stomach cramps and nausea and can last two to six weeks. Several prescription drugs can shorten the duration of the illness.

● Illnesses caused by giardia are required to be reported to health officials. In 2007, the most recent national data available, the CDC received more than 19,000 reports of giardiasis. Georgia has reported 595 cases so far this year, up from 413 cases during the same period in 2008.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa

● This common bacteria causes skin rashes referred to as “hot tub rash” or folliculitis.

● Symptoms can include a bumpy red rash and pus-filled blisters around hair follicles. The rash may be concentrated under a person’s swim suit because it allows contaminated water to stay in contact with skin for a longer period.

● The rash usually appears within a few days of exposure.

● Most rashes clear up on their own without scarring. A doctor may prescribe an antibiotic in severe cases. Cases of the disease are not required to be reported to health officials.


● A microscopic parasite that lives in the intestines of infected humans and animals, causing a diarrheal disease called cryptosporidiosis or “crypto.” People are infected by swallowing contaminated water, eating raw fruit or vegetables that are contaminated, or touching their mouths with contaminated hands. The parasite can survive for more than a week in a pool with 1 part per million of chlorine.

● The CDC estimates there are 300,000 cases of crypto in the U.S. each year, though the vast majority are never confirmed. There were more than 11,000 cases reported to CDC in 2007, the most recent national data available. Georgia has reported 228 crypto cases to CDC so far this year, up from 138 reported during the same period in 2008.

Ask questions

● How often do staff test the water? At a minimum, chlorine and pH levels should be tested twice daily; hourly when in heavy use.

● How much training does the pool’s operator have? Have they been certified through a national training course?

● Is a trained operator available on weekends, during peak use?

Use your senses

● Do you smell lots of chlorine? That’s a red flag. It often means there’s little chlorine available to kill germs because it’s already bound up with urine, feces, sweat and other contaminants, said Ryan Cira, environmental health manager for the DeKalb Board of Health.

● Is the water clean? You should be able to clearly see the bottom of the pool.

● Can you hear pumps and filtration systems running?

Check it out

● Ask the pool’s operator to show you their recent inspection reports or look at them at the county health department. DeKalb County posts some inspection information online at

● Test the water yourself with test strips purchased at a home improvement store.

Be responsible

●Don’t swim when you have diarrhea.

● Avoid getting pool water in your mouth and don’t swallow it.

● Change diapers in a bathroom — not poolside.

● Shower before swimming.

● Take children on frequent bathroom breaks and change diapers often.

Report problems

● If you suspect a health or safety problem at a public pool or spa — or believe you’ve been sickened at one — contact your county health department.

For more tips, go to

How we got this story

The AJC used the Georgia Open Records Act to request pool and spa inspection and closure data from the health departments in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. All counties provided data, except Fulton, where officials said their computer system did not allow data to be exported.

Each county records data differently, making a comprehensive analysis difficult.

Gwinnett’s data itemized 289 instances where inspectors closed pools and spas in 2009, the reason for the closure and whether they passed or failed follow-up inspections. They included 75 closures for no chlorine and 97 for chlorine levels that were too low. .

Cobb’s data covered 2,456 inspections in 2009, including 88 instances where pools or spas were closed for critical violations. Pools were recorded as failing 461 inspections and the “fail” code sometimes also indicates a closure, county officials said.

DeKalb’s data had inspection scores but didn’t record whether the pool had been closed for critical violations. The AJC was able to identify some closed pools by manually searching online inspection report information.

After reviewing the data, the newspaper reviewed copies of inspection reports for certain facilities. The Open Records Act also was used to obtain copies of state outbreak investigation reports.