“Public pools are the number one spreader of disease,” my boss said. He was teaching me how to test and balance pool chemistry. I was 16 and about to be in charge of the pool at the condo complex I worked for. My boss continued, “I’ll never go in a public pool again after this job.”
I spent my mornings cleaning, skimming, and testing the pool. I’d dump all sorts of liquids and powders into the chemical soup and mix it all together. I had to do it fast and be done before the old ladies showed up with their empty gallon milk jugs for aqua aerobics. It didn’t take me long to get good. With the pool, I was godlike. The sanitizer and pH levels almost never faltered from their nearly perfect happy mediums.
The spa was a different kind of beast. Most mornings, the levels would look good. But the instant one of the elderly residents would take a soak, things went into disarray. The levels would be totally fucked. Disinfectant levels would be dangerously low, having been used up sanitizing bacteria, pathogens, grime, deodorants, or whatever other contaminants rinsed off the tenants’ bodies. The pH would spike in one direction or another depending on how much or what kinds of sweat, piss, fecal matter, bodily fluids or oils washed into the tub. Keeping the water safe is a constant war that no pool operator should ever stop fighting.
When I moved to Austin, I saw things that got me thinking. I lived in a neglected, run-down apartment complex. Our maintenance team was a totally ragged crew of overworked/underpaid and ridiculously incompetent & unprofessional ex-crack types. They had my old job of keeping the pool safe … or not, in their case. The pool was green and murky, but that never stopped fully clothed Mexican kids from swimming in last summer’s extreme heat. Eventually, the Health Department put up some signs and chained the pool closed. It sat there for a few months, stewing. When the pool re-opened, my fully-clothed roommate jumped in, one drunken night, and the chlorine burned his skin.
All public and semi-public pools, including apartments, hotels, City of Austin-ran pools, and everything but private residential pools, are inspected by the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department. After breaking through the City’s reporter firewall, I got to talk to Robert Wright, the Sanitary Supervisor. He’s the guy in charge of the pool inspectors themselves. “We schedule them year-round,” he explained about pool inspection scheduling, “if we inspect one today then we’ll probably be out in a year or less … some pools, they keep the thing locked up during the winter, so we can’t access it at all. Sometimes, if we can get somebody in to meet us there readily, they’ll let us in and we’ll inspect it anyway, because we can’t do them all in the summer. That would be too many. We have to spread them out.” Besides the yearly inspections, which focus on pool chemistry as much as they do grounds safety (things like broken railings, broken doors, busted drain pipes, or broken glass in a pool, etc.), citizen complaints also trigger inspections. They are handled by the Environmental Health Services Division of the Health Department.
During an inspection, there are some major chemical problems that can get a pool shut down right away. Again, according to Wright, things like “too much disinfectant (chlorine), such that it’s toxic and it could be caustic to peoples’ skin, hair, eyes, nasal or mucus membranes and whatnot … that would be one. If your pH is too low, that’s an acidic state that the water’s in, that can also be very caustic and an irritant. Some people react more injuriously than others.”
According to the health laws, chlorine levels have to stay between 1 and 8 parts per million (ppm). pH levels have to be kept above 7 and below 7.8. Good water will have a pH around 7. Stomach acid, being extremely acidic, has a pH around 1. Bleach is highly basic and has a pH around 13. At a pool store, I found the “DPD Deluxe Test Kit.” It’s capable of measuring chlorine concentrations between 0.5 and 5 ppm and pH levels between 6.8 and 8.2. The DPD chlorine test works like this: Get a pool sample and pour the water into a test tube up to a marked line. Then you add five drops of reagent #1 (a mix of disodium phosphate and potassium phosphate), add five drops of reagent #2 (N, N-diethyl-p-phenylenediamine), cap the tube, and gently flip it upside down and back to mix. The sample will turn different shades of purple depending on how much chlorine is in the pool water. The darker, the more there is. (The pH test works the same, but instead with five drops of phenol red. The darker the purple, the higher the pH.) There’s a translucent gradient of possible purple shades with little numbers on them indicating ppm connected to the tube. You hold it up to the light and compare the test with the key.
The only limitation with my kit is the chlorine test only going up to 5 ppm. While the sample can get darker, the person at the pool store showed me a chart, the next level above 5 is 10. So any time a sample tests darker than 5, it’s impossible to accurately say if the chlorine levels are barely-legal or straight-up illegal (over 8 ppm). Any tests that come out really dark are just “high.”
After realizing that most pools are only tested once a year, and that a lot of maintenance crews are extremely broken down, I knew I had to do my own pool inspections. So I grabbed my “deluxe” pool testing kit, an at-home bacteria testing kit, and hit the road.
|Big Stacey Park Pool||601 East Live Oak Street, Austin, TX 78704||5||7.2||n/a|
|Gillis Park Pool||2504 Durwood Ave., Austin, TX 78704||1||7.1||n/a|
|The Oaks Apts||130 Cumberland Road, Austin, TX 78704||HI||7||n/a|
|Mabel Davis Pool||3427 Parker Lane, Austin, TX 78741||2||7.3||n/a|
|Park Lane Villas||1720 Woodward Street, Austin, TX 78741||HI||6.8||n/a|
|Wyndham Garden Hotel||3401 S I H 35, Austin, TX 78741||2||7.4||n/a|
|Country Garden Inn & Suites||2915 South I H 35, Austin, TX 78741||3||<6.8||n/a|
|Motel 6||2707 S I H 35, Austin, TX 78741||3||7.6||n/a|
|La Quinta Inn||1603 East Oltorf Street, Austin, TX 78741||0||7.3||YES|
|Canyon Oaks Apts||1601 Royal Crest Drive, Austin, TX 78741||HI||<6.8||n/a|
|University Crest Apts||1616 Royal Crest Drive, Austin, TX 78741||5||6.9||n/a|
|Country Club Creek Apts||4501 E Riverside Dr, Austin, TX 78741||2.5||7.2||n/a|
|Wickersham Green Apts||2310 Wickersham Lane, Austin, TX 78741||0||7.2||YES|
|Metropolis||2200 South Pleasant Valley Road, Austin, TX 78741||0||8.2||MAYBE|
|Ion at East End Student Apts||1600 Wickersham Lane, Austin, TX 78741||0||7.5||NO|
|Martin Neighborhood Pool||1626 Festival Beach Road, Austin, TX 78702||4||7.5||n/a|
|Rosewood Park Pool||1182 North Pleasant Valley Road, Austin, TX 78702||2||7.5||n/a|
|Super 8||1201 Interstate 35, Austin, TX 78702||2||7.2||n/a|
|Doubletree by Hilton Hotel||1617 IH 35 North, Austin, TX 78702||3||7.5||n/a|
|Duval Villa Apts||4305 Duval Street, Austin, TX 78751||4||7||n/a|
|Oak Park Apts||4505 Duval Street, Austin, TX 78751||HI||<6.8||n/a|
|Big Shipe Pool||4400 Avenue G, Austin, TX 78751||1||7.5||n/a|
|Chimney Sweep Apts||105 W 38 1/2 St., Austin, TX 78751||HI||<6.8||n/a|
|Plaza 38||206 West 38th Street, Austin, TX 78705||3||7||n/a|
|Le Marquee Apts||302 West 38th Street, Austin, TX 78705||5||7||n/a|
|Lone Star Lofts||2408 Leon Street, Austin, TX 78705||3||7.2||n/a|
Red = unacceptable/unsafe conditions
Pools without Any or Not Enough Chlorine
Normal levels of chlorine, the prescribed 1 to 8 ppm, can sanitize most pathogens in a pool. This would include all kinds of bacteria, viruses, and other harmful microorganisms. But don’t think that because a pool is properly chlorinated it is necessarily safe. Accidentally swallowing even well-chlorinated pool water can still get you sick. It takes time for chlorine to kill pathogens, especially when they’re clumped together, like they’d be in fecal matter. There are also some pathogens that can resist chlorine. “Crypto,” a.k.a. the cryptosporidium protozoan, is a common chlorine-resistant pathogen found in pools. It gives people real nasty diarrhea. When I asked the Dept. of Health’s Robert Wright about whether they test for bacteria or not on inspections, he said that it’s rare, except for times of mass-crypto outbreaks or complaints. In his years at his position, since ’03, he hasn’t seen an epidemic.
I got the at-home bacteria test kit to see if pools with low levels of chlorine also had harmful bacteria in the water. This test can detect E.coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa (a bacteria known to cause “hot tub folliculitis” … it can kill you if it infects your lungs), dysentery-causing Shigella bacteria, Enterobacter species that can cause UTIs, and “many other coliform and non-coliform bacteria.”
Spotting a pool with low chlorine levels isn’t easy without a test kit. A well-kept pool with legal limits of chlorine will only have a light chemical smell. A powerful-smelling pool is bad and something to watch out for. When “free” chlorine, the kind that’s available to attack and sanitize, acts against a pathogen or contaminant, it’s converted to an inactive form called “combined chlorine.” This form puts off a strong smell that you might associate with “smelling like pool.” Combined chlorine can burn your skin and is a symptom of a dirty pool.
For the most part, the pools I tested had a pretty mild smell. So I was suspicious of the following pools when I didn’t smell anything, walking up to them.
La Quinta Inn – E. Oltorf & IH-35
I pulled into this hotel’s lot after almost skipping it. A lot of the hotel pools were a pain in the ass to get to and included me jumping fences or sneaking around the back of a building. La Quinta’s pool area was easy to get to and full of people. They all stared as I dipped my test tube into the pool. Heads followed me walk around the gate and out to the lot. The water could have been bath water. Zero chlorine and a somewhat neutral pH of 7.3. I went back with a bigger plastic container and got a decent sized sample for bacteria testing. When I got home that night, the test came out positive for pathogenic bacteria.
Wickersham Green Apartments – 2310 Wickersham Ln
I decided to revisit the slums I talked about last month. I walked around the gate, trying to find an unlocked entrance. A gang of Latino and Black teenagers were smoking weed and watching me. Two kids were swimming in the pool and eventually their dad let me in. I got my sample as the kids splashed around. I looked back at the gate and saw that I needed a key to get out, too. Instead of bothering the guy again for his key, I climbed the seven foot wobbly fence and jumped over. Back in my car I did the test – no chlorine and a pH of 7.2. Bath water, again. I thought about going back and warning them, but I didn’t want to be a buzz kill. I noticed the pool water got my hands all oily when I was pulling out of the lot. The harmful bacteria test ended up producing a very strong positive result.
Metropolis Apartments – 2200 S. Pleasant Valley Rd
For anyone who’s never been, the Metropolis Apartments in south Austin are an all-concrete blockade of discount apartment units geared towards hippies, the poor, traveling weirdos, and all other people that come to mind when people talk about Austin being “weird.” If you ever get a chance to hang out here, do it. I dropped by on the Fourth of July for a friend of a friend’s party. That party ended up transferring to another unit’s party and people from other units came and went. It’s a very … “free” place.
Anyway, at some point the party I was at moved towards pool time. I tagged along with no intention of swimming. The pool area was a bizarre mix of preschoolers and smoking-and-drinking twenty-somethings plastered with tattoos. Someone explained that the pool at Metropolis was special because it was a chlorine-free “saltwater” pool.
I had never heard of a saltwater pool before, but I knew that saltwater alone doesn’t kill bacteria: look at the ocean. I looked online and found out that in the pool world, a salt water pool is called that because it’s equipped with a “salt water chlorine generator,” a machine that electrocutes salty pool water and generates chlorine. Usually, these pools have a salt level that is below the threshold for human taste.
I went back to test the pool a couple weeks later. It was empty and full of floating debris. The test came back like I expected and like our friend said it would: no chlorine and an extremely-high pH of 8.2.
The bacteria test was inconclusive, but swimming in this pool is still a dice roll. If you wouldn’t go to a house show, pick six random smoking-drinking-sweating strangers, and get into a bath with them, then you probably wouldn’t want to swim in Metropolis’ un-chlorinated saltwater pool.
Ion at East End Student Apartments – 1600 Wickersham Ln
This was the first of the student-bloc pools I tested. It had a chlorine level of 0 and a pH of 7.5 I took a sample home for bacteria testing, but it came up negative. Maybe during hot school-season weekends this would’ve been a different story, but the pool was basically deserted.
Pools with Too Much Chlorine … or Just “High” … and Acid Pools
For some reason, pools with high and off-the-charts chlorine levels tended to have low, acidic pH levels. Either of these conditions can make for a shitty swimming experience. Low pH can burn your eyes. High chlorine can fry your swimsuit and screw up your hair. I wondered if these pool operators were afraid of spreading disease, considering the amount of people using the pool or the number of tenants in the area. I also noticed that some of the more ghetto complexes and hotels, the ones that you’d expect to have basically zero chlorine and give zero fucks about it, actually had high levels of chlorine. Maybe some of these places had been busted for not having enough chlorine in the past and didn’t want to repeat the violation. Whatever the reason, they all kept the chlorine levels extra high.
The Oaks Apartments – 130 Cumberland Rd
When I walked up to the pool area, I heard a lot of yelling and I saw a small pile of beer trash outside the fence. Inside the area, there was one table with the entire surface covered in empty beer bottles. In the opposite corner of the pool, there was a group of MTV spring break types drinking and having a hell of a time. I bent down and filled a huge cup with pool water.
“Don’t drink that!” one of the guys yelled to me on my way out. “Chlorine!”
Back at my car the test results read: really high chlorine and a perfectly-neutral pH of 7. On my way out, I saw a well-known local Austin celebrity get out of his or her car in this lot. I won’t say who.
Park Lane Villas – 1720 Woodward St
This pool was slightly green and full of mothers with kids. I didn’t really know what to expect from a pool owned by the same man who caused 40 families to get kicked out of his apartment building because he wouldn’t maintain it until it became too unsafe to live in. (See: Wood Ridge Apartments fiasco last month.) The test came back with a high chlorine level and an illegal pH of 6.8.
Canyon Oaks Apartments – 1601 Royal Crest Dr
I basically had to test this pool after getting my open records requests back last month. The complex had a few complaints about sewage leaks around the property. But there was one recent complaint from a tenant worried about a recurring leak near, and maybe running into, the pool. Unfortunately, the person who filed the complaint wanted to be totally anonymous so the Code Compliance investigator couldn’t contact him or her. The case faded away because of that.
I got a big cup of water out of the pool. There were a lot of kids splashing around. One of them did a cannon ball and soaked me. The test came up high in chlorine with an acidic pH of 6.8. For a pool with a sewage maybe-leaking into it problem, it’s probably better that the pool was over-chlorinated than none at all. And I’m glad that I didn’t get cannonballed with full-blown fecal bacteria water.
Oak Park Apartments – 4505 Duval St
For some reason, of the few UT-area pools that were still running most of them were heavily chlorinated. Oak Park’s pool had a high chlorine level and a low acidic pH below 6.8.
Chimney Sweep Apartments – 105 W 38 ½ St
This deep pool also had a very high chlorine level and a really low pH. One thing I remember Robert Wright telling me is that the older pools usually have older equipment that is harder to control. When I worked for the condo complex, we had equipment from the 70s and sometimes balancing pool chemistry took lots of patience and skill.
Country Garden Inn & Suites – 2915 S IH-35
I honestly thought this pool was going to be a steaming crater of toxic goo when I turned off the frontage road. They boasted extremely cheap weekly rates and the complex could’ve used a face lift. The parking lot was cracked, and there was a makeshift basketball hoop fastened to the ice machine area’s roof. Some kids were swimming in the pool, and when I showed up with my cup, one of them asked, “Are you going to swim?”
“No,” I said, “I’m going to drink this water.”
The pool had a little bit of algae in it, but the chlorine levels were great: 3 ppm. The pH was too acidic, though: below 6.8.
University Crest Apartments – 1616 Royal Crest Dr
The University Crest Apartments are across the street from Canyon Oaks and aren’t in much better shape. The pool was, though, with a chlorine reading of 5 ppm and a poorly maintained pH of 6.8. I don’t get it. All you have to do to raise the pH is dump some powder into the pool. But I guess that would require testing which is a lot to ask in some cases.
My Apartment Complex – Undisclosed Location
I was bummed when I tested the pool at my apartment complex. I noticed the strong chlorine smell the second I stepped out the door to get a sample, over 100 feet from the pool. It turned out to be incredibly chlorinated. But worst of all, out of all the pools I tested, mine had the absolute lowest, most acidic pH. I considered dumping some baking soda into the pool and monitoring it on my own, but it would be really awkward getting caught. I don’t want to file a complaint, or draw attention to myself in any way, either, because it’s a little Nazi regime here. Read any Google review of this place. They’ll tell you. That is if you can find it.
Open Records Requests
I filed public information requests with the Department of Health. I asked for copies of all citizen pool complaints made since April 2012, just before summer swim season, to get a picture of what we’re dealing with out there.
A lot of complaints came in about green, algae-ridden pools. Other quality issues included cloudy water, stagnant, mosquito-attracting pools, “smelly pool(s),” generally “dirty” water, powerful chemical stenches, a dead frog floating, “black pool water,” broken gates, drain covers, and glass.
These things are all important, yes, especially to the Health Department. But I really wondered about infections, rashes, outbreaks, and anything like that. Here’s what I found.
Regency Apartments – 401 Little Texas Ln
This place had an insane number of negative reviews on Google and ApartmentRatings.com for “unprofessional” and “shady” management techniques. There were a lot of reports of peoples’ entire $1,300+ deposits disappearing and then being charged hundreds on top of it at move out. So I can understand why the person who filed this complaint “needed” to stay anonymous. It read, “Spa has caused rashes on over 10 residents/guests. Complainant tested water to find sometimes 0 chlorine and sometimes off the chart (once complainant observed water bleach out a woman’s bathing suit).” It went on to say that there wasn’t a certified pool technician managing the pool. Although Regency Apartments are technically an upscale place with high rent, it just proves that rich or poor you never really know what someone else’s pool is going to be like until you test it.
Gold’s Gym Tech Ridge – 235 Canyon Ridge Dr
In July, a Gold’s Gym customer filed a complaint. It said, “Complainant diagnosed with Pseudomonas aeruginosa folliculitis in late June (’12) and believes she was infected by spa … the scum ring around spa contains dead skin cells.” In case you forgot, Pseudomonas bacteria is responsible for “hot tub folliculitis” and is commonly found in poorly managed pools and can kill you in extreme cases. Maybe my old boss wasn’t wrong after all.
The Zone/The Edge – 4700 E Riverside Dr
A June complaint concerning these student-bloc heavyweights read, “Apartment does not have a certified pool operator onsite and have been keeping the pools in … shock mode. Complainant tested the pool and chemicals are way off.” (It’s starting to look like there are a bunch of psychos out there testing their own pools, isn’t it?)
City Pools & The Law
Texas allows counties and cities to require every pool permit holder to also designate somebody with a Certified Pool Operator’s (CPO) certificate to be in charge of cleaning and balancing the pool. Only a small number of counties have these requirements. Travis County is not one of them. Tarrant County does require pool operators to pass a CPO class. They also charge re-inspection fees ($125) for pools that fail their inspections, requiring a second visit. The money helps pay for the pool inspectors’ division. Travis County charges a $100 re-inspection fee.
The City of Austin does require its own pool operators to be certified, though. That probably explains why every city-run pool is well kept. In fact, the only remotely exciting thing that happened at the city pools was that the lifeguards all stopped me if they caught me getting a water sample:
“Hey, you’re not going to drink that pool water, are you?” A lifeguard at Mabel Davis asked.
“Hell no! That’s disgusting,” I said back.
“Good,” another bigger lifeguard wearing a cowboy hat said. “Because there was this guy the other day that came in here with a gallon jug and I watched him fill it up with pool water and start drinking it!”
Again at the Rosewood pool, I filled my cup, and the lifeguard looked at me, confused: “Hey, you’re not going to drink that, right?”
The Gillis Park, Big Stacey Neighborhood, Mabel Davis, Rosewood, Martin, and Big Shipe pools were all well-balanced and clean. I even tried to get a sample from shallow areas right next to packs of screaming children, but the city’s chemistry was unbeatable. Even against shitty aqua diapers.
The Department of Health told me that their inspectors find about 2% of pools to be in violation. That gives Austin pools a 98% pass rate. When I added up the results of my investigation, I found radically different numbers. Altogether, I tested 28 pools. Taking away the public city pools, which were all well-kept, we’re left with 22 pools. Of these remaining hotel and apartment pools, only 10 of them had acceptable pH and chlorine levels. That’s a 45% pass-rate, or a giant F for the math geniuses out there. Two of the 22, or 9%, tested positive for harmful bacteria.
The open record requests obviously aren’t comforting, either. In the past three months, two people reported infections caused from pathogens in a public or semi-public pool. Thinking about all these mismanaged, bacteria ridden swimming holes makes places like Barton Springs look pretty damn good with its ice cold, deep, moving water that gets regularly tested for fecal coliform and E. coli. At least they are aware of what’s living in their water and they’re not operating under the swimmer assumption that the water is sterilized. The city will actually shut down Barton Springs if bacteria levels get too high. That’s a hell of a lot more than you can say about a lot of places.
The Center for Disease Control mails out free pool testing strips to people who want to test their local pools. When people report back with chlorine and pH levels, they add it to a database and display a graph on their site. The charts basically match mine: 54% of CDC-reported pools have unhealthy pH and 55% have unhealthy chlorine levels. Considering that these reports come from all over the U.S., not just the Wild Wild West out here, it looks like shitty pool maintenance isn’t just an Austin thing.
Obviously pool operators can’t be trusted to keep the majority of pools in acceptable or safe condition. But not requiring operators to take classes and fully understand pool chemistry doesn’t help the situation. Also, testing pools during the winter might be an OK thing to do if you’re just checking up on railings, but for that to be the only test of the year seems ridiculous.
One thing I learned operating my work’s pool was that the levels are affected by literally everything: who gets in, how many people swim, whether it’s raining or sunny, hot or cold, what kind of sunscreen the swimmers chose, whether or not people peed in the pool, or showered beforehand. Combine that with lazy or overworked management with zero pool skills, once-a-year testing, a sweltering swimming season and a ton of swimmers and you get the perfect recipe for a nasty bathwater pool.
Next time you see someone grabbing a cup of water out of the pool and testing it, instead of yelling “Don’t drink that!” you might want to ask, “Hey, how’s the water?”