Testing the Waters: A Taking Action Investigation, Part 1

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In a Taking Action Investigation, WHNT News 19 discovered potentially harmful bacteria present at public splash pads in the Tennessee Valley. Over the last two months, WHNT News 19 conducted water quality tests at water parks and splash pads across north Alabama, a total of seven locations. Some results were good, others downright disturbing.

Standing, sitting, or splashing while surrounded by jets of cold water on a hot day seems to be the ideal solution for surviving north Alabama's sweltering summer. But is this cool way to combat the heat and humidity a health risk?

In June, 13 children and two adults suffered a severe gastro-intestinal illness after visiting a water park in Opelika. The Alabama Department of Public Health confirmed five children tested positive for E. coli infection. This incident made us wonder how safe are similar facilities in our area. WHNT News 19 decided to test public water parks, splash pads, and fountains in the Tennessee Valley. Working undercover, we collected water samples from seven different test sites.

We focused our investigation on free splash parks only. WHNT News 19 collected samples from the River Heritage Park Splash Pad in Florence, Riverwild Splash Pad inside Decatur's Delano Park, the Scottsboro Splash Park, H.A. Alexander Park Splash Pad in Moulton, Heritage Park water play area in Cullman, as well as the Jane K. Lowe Children's Fountain at the Bicentennial Park in downtown Huntsville and the interactive fountains at Bridge Street Town Centre.

WHNT News 19 enlisted Enersolv in Decatur to evaluate the water quality.

"The test we use is an EPA-approved method," says Dr. Bill Hollerman, the Vice President of Technical Services at Enersolv.

Enersolv is certified by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to do bacteriological water testing. Dr. Hollerman processed the samples, which were labeled by numbers, dates, and times -- not locations -- to ensure fair results. Hollerman tested the water for total coliform and E. coli.

"E. coli is a more dangerous organism and indicates the potential for fecal material being present," explains Hollerman.

Five of the seven locations checked out fine. There was no total coliform and no E. coli in the samples from Florence, Moulton, Decatur, Cullman, and Scottsboro. However, the sample from the Jane K. Lowe Children's Fountain at the Bicentennial Park in downtown Huntsville revealed the presence of total coliform. The most disturbing test result came from the fountain at Bridge Street Town Centre. It tested positive for both total coliform and E. coli.

"Total coliform may or may not be a risk," says Hollerman. "It indicates a potential risk. The E. coli can be a risk for stomach upset, nausea, getting sick."

Due to the immediate health threat associated with E. coli, we re-tested the water at Bridge Street the next day. That time, Bridge Street tested positive for total coliform, but not E. Coli.

Since both the Bridge Street and the Jane K. Lowe fountains tested positive for total coliform, we decided to test them both again two weeks later. The second test at the Jane K. Lowe Children's Fountain got a clean bill of health - no sign of total coliform nor E. Coli. The Bridge Street fountain failed, and again tested positive for total coliform and E.coli.

"It is something that could be of concern when it comes to a public health standpoint," said Dr. Mary McIntyre, the Medical Officer for the Bureau of Communicable Diseases.

When WHNT News 19 revealed our results to Dr. McIntyre of the Alabama Department of Public Health, she said Madison County does not require inspections of pools and public splash pads, instead, each facility is encouraged to follow certain recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Those recommendations consist of a pH range of between 7.2 and 7.8," describes McIntyre. "When it comes down to the chlorine levels, the recommendation is that the chlorine levels be maintained at one to three parts per million."

Are those guidelines being followed here in Huntsville? WHNT News 19 took action to get answers.

First, we spoke with John Johnson, the Swimming and Activities Supervisor for the city of Huntsville. Johnson is in charge of maintaining the Jane K. Lowe Children's Fountain.

"We check the chemicals at least three times a day, possibly four times a day," says Johnson.

Johnson says the fountain refills with fresh water daily and is treated with chemicals before it opens to the public. Plus, rules are prominently posted, which include no food or drink, no diapers, and no pets. When WHNT News 19 revealed the test results and the one positive reading for total coliform in the water, Johnson said, with confidence, the fountain is safe.

"I don't think there's anything for the public to worry about because that could have been something that was transported through the air," said Johnson.

At Bridge Street Town Centre, the results were much more grim. Three samples, each one positive for the presence of total coliform and two for the presence of E. coli.

"We haven't seen that before, so if there's an issue we need to correct, we'll absolutely do it," says Bridge Street General Manager Rochelle Allgood.

Allgood says the interactive water feature is a guest favorite, and therefore a priority for them. She says the 150 gallon tank cycles in fresh water through out the day and is thoroughly cleaned twice a month.  Plus, she says they perform daily chemical checks.

"We test for chlorine, alkalinity and pH," says Allgood. "Those are the main things we test for every day."

Pop jet rules are very visible at Bridge Street. The sign says no bare feet, no food or drinks, no dogs and all children must be supervised by an adult. After learning of the test results, Allgood says they are committed to correcting any element of their system that may be contaminated with the bacteria.

"Whatever we need to do, whatever investigations we need to do or whatever steps we need to take, we'll absolutely do it," said Allgood. "We appreciate you bringing this to our attention and we will do whatever we need to do."

WHNT News 19 will follow up with Bridge Street to see what's being done to decontaminate the splash pad. Right now, it is closed. The general manager says there have been no problems in the four years the fountain has been open.

WHNT News 19 would like to point out, positive results aren't a sign of negligence. Our water quality expert, Dr. Bill Hollerman, acknowledges there are other factors that can impact the reading such as the number of visitors, weather, or environmental contaminants. That's why it's important for the public to know that they also have a role in making sure these public splash pads are safe. Following the posted rules and CDC guidelines is very important.

The CDC encourages facilities to be proactive and educate swimmers and parents by handing out prevention pamphlets or putting up a poster with these six steps for protection against recreational water illnesses:

Don't swim when you have diarrhea. This is especially important for kids in diapers.Don't swallow the water.Practice good hygiene.Take your kids on frequent bathroom breaks.Don't change diapers at poolside, use the bathroom.Wash your child thoroughly, especially the rear end, with soap and water before swimming.

See Part 2 of our Taking Action Investigation: Testing The Waters.

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