How Safe are Public Swimming Pools?

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MEDFORD, Ore. – Seasonal and year-round pools are getting ready for the rush of summer swimmers. But the great fun of a pool comes with great responsibility.

“We’ve learned in the past that sometimes the littlest mistake can make a big impact on the pool,” said Heather Webb, Pool Manager at America’s Best Kids.

America’s Best Kids is one of a number of pools in the county that offer lessons and free swim all year round. They say kids bring obvious risks to a group swimming environment – even using codes like “code brown” and “code green” to indicate bathroom emergencies.

When one of those codes happens, it can wreak havoc on the pool’s mixture of chemicals.

“Next to the safety of a child, it’s the next priority,” said Webb.

There are 200 pool and spa facilities in the Jackson County; that includes year-round pools like America’s Best Kids, as well as seasonal or outdoor pools. They are all regulated by county health inspectors, who look at everything from the filtration and temperature controls to chemical mixture.

And they say the mixture has to be precise.

“If they’re not keeping up with their chemistry the way that they should, then that gives the opportunity of the viruses and the diseases to be floating around in the water,” said Chad Petersen, a Supervisor with the Jackson County Environmental Public Health Department.

The chemical balance of a pool includes acidity, temperature, and chlorine or saline levels among other things. It can change from safe ranges to unsafe in the blink of an eye. Because of that, pool closures are relatively frequent. Last year there were about 30 closures, most of which voluntary.

And in most of those situations, the pool was back up and running in a matter of minutes.

“They have the option to re-open at that point, once the chemistry is in balance,” said Petersen.

That system, inspectors say, works well on paper. There has never been a disease linked to a pool in Jackson County.

But that may just be because we don’t know.

“It’s very hard to link whether it was contracted via the water or by something they ate, or if it was through association with another ill person,” said Petersen.

Petersen says there is a good rule of thumb to follow. A general use pool — a hotel, apartment complex, or city pool – is legally required to check the chemicals in the water at least every four hours. If they don’t have a specifically-assigned maintenance person, that’s when those things get overlooked.

Webb says, as someone who has had to clear out pools because of accidents, she doesn’t need much of a reminder.

“I look at a pool and I think to myself, ‘would I let my child into that pool?’” said Webb.

Inspectors say, when in doubt, talk to the maintenance person or pool manager. If they’re keeping up with chemical checks as required, that pool is generally safe to swim.

Actual pool inspections are also available upon request at the Jackson County Environmental Public Health Department.