What's Living in Your Water Park?


How sanitary are water park features anyway? AOL goes undercover to sample the water at some of the nation's top water parks

When temperatures soar, tens of thousands of Americans push through the turnstiles at water parks across the country, seeking to cool off at a corkscrewing waterslide or a thundering wave pool. But just how safe is that water they're splashing in?

The first water park in the nation opened in Florida in 1977. By 2006, 78 million people in North America (the U.S., Canada and Mexico) had visited a water park. But in the 33 years that water parks have been operating, there has been little governmental oversight. Many states have no specific laws or regulatory agencies governing water quality in water parks.

In 1998, an outbreak of E. coli at White Water Park near Atlanta resulted in illness for 26 children aged 12 and under, seven hospitalizations for kidney failure, and the death of one child. According to the Center for Disease Control, this tragedy marked an increase in national awareness of the importance of recreational water quality. As for the park itself, it installed automated testing systems throughout and increased chlorine levels from the recommended 2 parts per million to 3.5.

According to the Center for Disease Control, Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs) traced to water parks, swimming pools and water play areas can be caused by a single person with diarrhea who contaminates the entire swimming area. When a swimmer swallows water in a water feature that has been contaminated with E. coli bacteria, the result can be serious and even deadly.

To check water quality at five water parks across the country, AOL sent five undercover reporters to test three water features at each park. The reporters purchased and used Watersafe® Rapid Bacteria Pool Test Strips, which test for the presence of E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and many other coliform (of which E. coli is a species) and non-coliform bacteria. AOL chose this kit because it is readily available.

According to Tom Round, Vice President of Business Development at Silver Lake Research Corporation, the Watersafe® product "detects a broad range of bacteria, including E. coli, Pseudomonas, Shigella, and Enterobacter. The presence of any of these bacteria in a swimming pool indicates a possible unsafe condition, such as inadequate disinfection, that could lead to recreational water illness in bathers." The test strips display results quickly, whereas the results of lab tests, which are certainly more thorough and more accurate, may not be available for days -- and may not be convenient for anyone intending to take a dip right away.

Whenever possible, the reporters also interviewed park personnel on the methods used to maintain water quality.

Read on to see what we found.

Butsky, flickr

Raging Waters, San Dimas, California
Raging Waters, a 50-acre park in San Dimas, is an extremely popular spot for families from Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley area; in 2007 the park was sixth in the nation in attendance (650,000). The thrill slides attract teens, while toddlers have large areas in which to play. Water is constantly flowing through the park attractions, and there's a scent of chlorine in the air.

Testing and Results
The water was tested in three separate areas: Kid's Kingdom, Amazon Adventure and the Flowrider. The test was done around noon on a weekday in early June, when the park had around 500 people in attendance. The facilities looked clean and well-cared-for.

All areas tested negative; meaning bacteria including E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Shigella, Enterobacter, and other species were either well below danger levels or nonexistent.

Who Monitors the Park?
The State of California has no specific regulatory agency watching over water quality at privately owned water parks. Oversight is up to local or county authorities.


Waterworks Park, Redding, California
A two-hour drive north from Sacramento, California, is the small city of Redding, the center of the state's year-round outdoor recreation region known as the Golden Circle. Located some 10 minutes' drive from most Redding hotels is WaterWorks Park, where locals and visitors go to beat the Sacramento Valley's three-digit summer heat.

Testing and Results

AOL Undercover visited the park around noon on a Saturday in June. Water was tested at three attractions: the small splash pool, with about 30 people present, the large splash pool, with about 40 people present, and the Kiddy Water Playground, with about 100 patrons present.

Results for tested areas were negative.

Water Park Maintenance and Safety
"We add chlorine daily," said Park Supervisor Leann Anderson. "We test for chlorine balance and for bacteria." The park conducts bacteria tests on each pool every two hours, Anderson said. There are other safety precautions in place at the park: Maintenance crews move around the park disinfecting the concrete if someone drops food or skins a knee. All concrete surfaces are cleaned daily. No outside food, snorkels, masks or fins are allowed.

Who Monitors the Park?
Though the state of California has no oversight, the Shasta County Resource Management's Environmental Health Division issues permits and conducts mandatory inspections on all public pools in the county. Checks include inspections of locker, shower and dressing rooms, toilets, filtration systems, pumps, safety and disinfection equipment, pipes and water quality.

Noah's Ark, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
"We have more water parks per square mile than any place in the world," said Melanie Platt-Gibson, director of marketing and communications for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau. The almost 20-square-mile area in south central Wisconsin boasts 21 indoor and outdoor water parks. About six years ago, the Dells, which includes the country's largest outdoor water park, Noah's Ark, as well as its first indoor one, branded itself "The Waterpark Capital of the World," she said. On a recent Friday, AOL Undercover headed to Noah's Ark, which draws a little more than 50,000 visitors on a typical summer day, said Platt-Gibson.

Testing and Results
Testing was done at three attractions: the Big Kahuna (a wave pool with water connecting to a kiddie area), Congo Bongo Rapids (a group raft ride), and Adventure River (a relaxing lazy ride, with geysers and a waterfalls).

All three tests were negative.

Water Park Maintenance and Safety
Tim Gantz, president and co-owner of Noah's Ark, said, "We take [clean water] extremely seriously. Without good water quality, you don't have a safe park." He said automated systems track water quality continuously, 24 hours a day. In addition, larger attractions are checked manually at least every hour during the day; smaller ones are checked manually every few hours. Gantz and his brother, a co-owner, who are licensed operators, take turns checking the computerized system at night when the park is closed to make sure it functions properly, and staff members check again in the early morning, well before the park opens. Each venue is required to have one certified water attraction operator according to the state of Wisconsin; Noah's Ark has about a dozen, Gantz said. "We go above and beyond. We always make sure we are ahead of the game."

Who Monitors the Park?

Shane Sanderson, recreational waters program manager for Wisconsin's Department of Health Services, said the state code stipulates laws governing the safety, maintenance and operation of water parks, such as disinfectant usage and testing, and recirculation systems. Inspections are required once a year by either state or local government. Large water parks in the Dells, however, are inspected by the state, he said.

If the facility has an automated computer testing system, operators are required to check the water manually once a day. If water is only tested manually, checks twice a day are required.

"We try to encourage operators to get automated systems," Sanderson said. "They have proven to be successful because they immediately adjust chemicals." Most water parks in the Dells use automated systems to test water quality, and also "go above the minimum requirements of the code," which is recommended, he said. In the early 2000s, the Wisconsin Department of Health conducted a study of five indoor and five outdoor water parks, and found high compliance -- 90 percent -- with standards for water quality, which they attributed to the fact that large water parks use automated water purification systems and employ at least one nationally certified expert.

Splashdown Beach

Splashdown Beach, Fishkill, New York
Though not one of America's largest parks (it's billed as "America's Biggest Little Water Park"), AOL chose SplashDown Beach because its intimate size attracts families with young children. (The park had ample signage about the importance of waterproof swim diapers to minimize leakage.)

The test was done on around noon on a busy Saturday in late June when the attendance numbered about 800. The park looked well maintained and clean.

Testing and Results
The water was tested in three locations: the Wave Pool (mixed ages), Shipwreck Lagoon (a pirate-themed attraction for toddlers), and Cowabunga Falls (a thrill ride for older kids, teens and adults).

All three tests were negative.

Water Park Maintenance and Safety
Steve Turk, SplashDown Beach's president and chief executive, stated: "We take [water monitoring] so seriously. Lifeguard and maintenance teams check every attraction every hour, so each one gets tested twice each hour. On busy days, testing is done every half-hour as well. Computer-monitored probes track water quality continuously at each attraction and automatically adjust chemicals. "Water quality is everything," said Turk, who also routinely conducts "surprise" tests.

Who Monitors the Park?
As a result of a cryptosporidium-fueled outbreak at an upstate New York water park, New York State requires the use, in addition to chlorine, of ultra-violet or ozone treatment of water in water parks. Tom Allocco, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Health, said the State Sanitary Code governs water quality at water parks in the state by setting regulations, but county health departments are responsible for monitoring and enforcing them. Inspection frequencies vary, according to county health departments, he said, but at a minimum, they are conducted at least once a year. State law requires that disinfectant and pH levels be tested at least three times a day, Allocco said.

Turk said he was aware that his park exceeded state regulations. "I'm fastidious," he said. "That's the only way you keep water crystal clear."

Alicia Wagner, AP

Wet 'N Wild, Orlando, Florida
Part of Universal Orlando, Wet 'N Wild is "30 acres of slides and flumes, surf and sun," according to the park's website. AOL Undercover visited on July 3 at about 2 p.m. The park was packed; a supervisor estimated that there were about 5,000 visitors that day. The reporter smelled a very strong odor of chlorine.

Testing and Results
The water was tested at the wave pool, the kiddie pool and the exit pool at the end of one of the popular water slides, the six-story Der Stuka ride.

All three tests were negative.

Who Monitors the Park?
Inspections conducted twice a year by the Florida Department of Health test water parks for PH levels, water quality and chlorine readings.

The Bottom Line

Do all these negative results mean that the water at all five parks is perfectly safe all the time? Not necessarily. Test results only reflect the condition of the water on the time and the day of testing.

Furthermore, Watersafe's disclaimer notes that the product is a screening test and cannot certify water as safe or unsafe, as it provides only approximate results. Also, the Rapid Bacteria Test does not test for everything.

Of course, water parks have a vested interest in maintaining clean water. One outbreak of bacteria-borne disease can cut attendance dramatically and permanently tarnish a reputation. But in many states there's no government agency making sure that water parks are providing clean water -- so it's up to consumers to be proactive, to check with local water parks as to what kind of systems they use, and to verify how often the water is tested.

What About Chlorine?
The chlorine that water parks use doesn't kill everything -- at least not immediately -- and the time it takes varies. When pH and disinfectant levels are correct, chlorine kills most germs that cause recreational water illness within minutes, but it takes longer to kill some germs, like Cryptosporidium, which can survive for days even in a properly disinfected pool.

According to the CDC, because Cryptosporidium has developed a tolerance to chlorine, reported cases of disease from the germ more than doubled from 2004 to 2007.

Too much chlorine can also create health problems. It can be absorbed through skin and swallowed, and it's listed by the EPA as a carcinogen. Breathing in the by-products of chlorine (trihalomethanes) can cause respiratory illness, central nervous system, liver and kidney problems. So hyper-increased use of chlorine is not the solution.

A secondary method of water purification is also necessary for complete safety, and new ones are constantly being developed. Ozone and ultra-violet treatment are two that have been proven effective and are in use at some water parks.

What Does the CDC Say?

There is currently no federal regulatory authority governing the operation and maintenance of water parks, said Michele Hlavsa, an epidemiologist and Chief of the Healthy Swimming Program at the CDC's Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch. All codes are approved and enforced by state and local agencies.

But the CDC is about to release the first part of a "Model Aquatic Health Code" that it hopes will become a national standard. The full Code will cover all aspects of recreational water venues, including guidelines on preventing and responding to recreational water illnesses.

"We are all pretty excited about it," said Shane Sanderson (of Wisconsin's Department of Health Services), as it will provide uniformity, similar to what exists now in the food industry. It is important, he said, as reporting of recreational water illnesses is "nothing short of awful." Often these illnesses are not attributed to contaminated water because it can take days to manifest symptoms, long after the water activity is over, he said. "As long as the requirements are strong and science-based, consistency is extremely important to regulate the industry." A national standard would help the industry and send a strong message to the public. "We all have the same goal," he said. "Safe water."

"We encourage the public to be more proactive," said Michele Hlavsa. She said the CDC's Healthy Swimming web site has helpful information on how to keep healthy, including fact sheets, prevention tips and how to use portable test strips. But overall, Hlavsa said, compliance at water parks is quite good. "They have set a high standard, in large part because they tend to have trained operators," she said. "In general, they've been the leaders."

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