CINCINNATI — Before you or your kids jump into the pool this summer — whether it's at a local swim club, a hotel or a neighbor's back yard — stop, look and smell.
That's the best way to determine quickly whether it's safe to swim, local and national experts say.
• Stop to make sure there is safety equipment on hand — such as life preservers and long poles with hooks on the end that can be used to reach a swimmer in distress. There also should be a phone nearby for calling 911 if necessary.
• Look at the pool to make sure you can see the bottom, especially at the deep end. If the water isn't clear enough, it's not safe.
"You can have all the chlorine, you can have the best pH. But if you can't see the bottom of the pool, that pool should be shut down," said Dr. Mel Kramer, president of EHA Group, an environmental and public health consulting firm with headquarters near Washington, D.C. "Sometimes we let science get in the way of common sense."
• But the science is important, too. And that's why you should smell your surroundings. If you walk into a pool and sense an overwhelming chlorine odor, that doesn't mean there is too much chlorine in the pool. It means there's not enough.
"If you go to a pool, and it is operating properly, there should be no odor," said Carrie Yeager, environmental health coordinator for the Warren County Combined Health District. "If you have a strong chlorine smell, something is wrong chemically."
To help you better understand which public pools in Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties have the best track records when it comes to safety and science, WCPO has collected and analyzed pool inspection records from September 2013 through early June of this year.
The records include more than 1,800 violations related to PH and alkalinity levels and 500 more for chlorine problems.
Local pool inspectors have documented goose feces piled up on a pool deck and chlorine levels 20 times too high. A swimmer at one hotel pool complained of burning skin, lungs and throat after a water-exercise class.
WCPO pulled records from the three local health departments that post their pool reports online. The Cincinnati Health Department and the four-county Northern Kentucky Independent Health District both conduct pool inspections, but do not make those records available online.
WCPO's analysis includes 8,200 violations at 789 pools and spas in hotels, swim clubs, fitness centers and golf courses.
It does not include most water attractions at Kings Island, Great Wolf Lodge or The Beach in Warren County because those attractions are classified as "amusement park rides" and are inspected by state officials instead.
Ever-Changing Water Quality
Thousands of pools and spas are closed each year for serious health violations, according to a May report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC's estimate was based on a 2013 analysis of more than 48,000 inspections in the five states with the most pools and spas: Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Texas. The CDC found that public health officials ordered that 12.5 percent of those pools, or one in eight, be closed.
“We should all check for inspection results online or on site before using public pools, hot tubs, or water playgrounds and do our own inspection before getting into the water,” said Michele Hlavsa, chief of CDC’s Healthy Swimming Program.
Ohio's administrative code requires county environmental health officials to inspect every licensed swimming pool or spa once a year, said Chris Balster, the director of environmental health at the Warren County Combined Health District.
But Warren County inspects its 268 licensed pools and spas every month to make sure that they are in operation, he said.
"The quality of the water can change from day to day," he said. "If we have a lot of rainfall or a lot of sunlight directed at the pool, that can affect the chemicals in the pool," he said.
Pool inspection violations often can be fixed on the spot, Yeager said. If a pool needs more chlorine, for example, inspectors typically watch to make sure the chemical is added and then wait for 30 minutes to ensure the water has the right levels before they leave, she said.
But pool inspection records that show repeat violations can indicate a pattern of problems that aren't being fixed, Yeager said.
Diving into the Data
WCPO’s database shows chemical problems are the most common infractions, including water that’s too acidic or has too much alkalinity to enable chlorine to work properly as a disinfectant. But there are some unusual citations:
“Deck surfaces had standing goose feces piled up on both sides,” inspectors noted at Kenwood Greene Condominiums at 7752 Montgomery Road in May 2014.
At the Village of Northgate Apartments a pool user complained in July 2015 that “a person becomes ill after swimming every time he” swims in the pool at 3500 Commons Circle. “The complaint could not be confirmed,” inspectors noted. The pool had no violations since then.
The property manager at Kenwood Greene said its 2014 violation was a pre-season problem. The pool deck was "power-washed and cleaned" before the pool opened, said Vicki Viox at Premier Property Management. Village of Northgate did not return WCPO's calls.
At least two pools were closed in May of this year after inspectors noted problems:
“Chlorine levels in the pool were 20 times the normal levels, chlorine at this level is unsafe for bathers,” inspectors noted at Mills Run Apartments in Forest Park May 26. “Pool shall close and remain closed until the water quality levels are normal.”
At the Woods of Turpin apartments, a pool shut down last July was showing signs of progress at the end of May. “The facility is actively working with companies to fix the violations,” inspectors noted May 31. “The circulation of the pool seemed to be operating improperly.”
The Woods of Turpin was deemed “OK to operate” on June 14. A property manager did not respond to WCPO's questions about the pool. At Mills Run, a spokesman said everything but a loose drain cover has been fixed at the indoor pool. The complex was hoping finish repairs and open the pool by July 4.
WCPO identified at least seven pools with repeat violations that are being watched extra closely by local health inspectors.
Five of them are in “probationary periods” with Hamilton County Public Health, meaning they’re inspected more frequently and encouraged to undergo training. The pools on probation:
Hilton Garden Inn – Blue Ash
Comfort Suites – Forest Park
Charleston of Blue Ash/Altitude
North Hills Swim Club – Springfield Township.
Tennyson HOA – Sharonville
Charleston of Blue Ash has since changed ownership and is now called the Altitude Blue Ash. In a written statement, a spokesman for the new property manager said the new owners and Village Green, the property manager have been "working together to make this a valuable amenity to the residents."
"This includes improving regular maintenance to fix the immediate inherited problems, and significant renovations to improve the long-term quality," Roger Tertocha, the director of corporate communications for Village Green, wrote in an email to WCPO.
The work includes "complete resurfacing of the interior of the pool, complete rebuilding of the concrete pool deck surrounding it, repairs and painting to the pool gate and fence, and confirming all emergency equipment is up to code and operating properly."
Tertocha added: "It's also important to note that since the new owner acquired possession and we took over management, the swimming pool has never been deemed unsafe by an inspector, nor has it ever been closed due to safety."
Calls or emails were not returned by Hilton Garden Inn, Comfort Suites, North Hills Swim Club or Tennyson HOA.
Clermont County pool inspectors are keeping a close watch on two hotel pools that rank at the top of WCPO’s list of violators: Ameristay Hotel in Batavia and Comfort Inn & Suites in Eastgate.
“They both have similar problems: water clarity issues, disinfectant residual not being properly maintained,” said Rob Perry, Clermont County’s director of environmental health.
Ameristay had 82 violations since January 2014, including 29 so far this year. Perry said the county would pursue a “corrective action plan” if conditions don’t improve by early July. Nick Patel of Ameristay told 9 On Your Side's Julie O'Neill that the hotel got a new owner a year and a half ago and has made extensive renovations. The pool is now checked four times each day, he said.
Comfort Inn had 124 violations since December 2013 and was the subject of a water-related illness complaint last summer.
“I took a water exercise class,” said the unidentified complainant in county records. “Upon leaving my skin smelled and was burning along with burning in my throat, lungs, chest, stinging eyes and private parts burned for two days.”
Inspectors found the complaint valid and Comfort Inn voluntarily closed the pool to address several problems. Many of the issues have since been addressed. But Comfort Inn still faces a possible license revocation because the hotel manager hadn’t completed a pool-operating course as required by the end of May.
Comfort Inn's New York -based owner, Harvinder Singh, said his manager has now signed up for the required training. Singh is taking additional steps to make sure the pool is safe, including the hiring of an outside company to monitor the pool on a weekly basis.
"I take it very serious," he said.
The Days Inn at 5410 Ridge Road also had a high number of violations in the inspection records that WCPO examined. But General Manager Jatin Patel said the vast majority of those problems occurred before new owners and managers took over the hotel in January of this year.
"We don't have any problem," he said. "It was the old owner. It's all resolved."
Patel said he ensures his staff tests the hotel pool's water quality four times a day to ensure quality.
An inspection of the pool June 20 found the pool needed more chlorine and that the water's pH was outside the recommended range. A follow-up inspection the next day found those problems were corrected. Two less serious violations were noted, but those were corrected, too, according to the Hamilton County Public Health Department's website.
How About That Smell?
Kramer stressed that common sense can be a guide in deciding whether public pools are safe.
He believes all pools should have lifeguards, for instance, and that swimmers at camps should have "buddies" who are taught to keep an eye out for them.
"Anything about swimming pools is about safety," Kramer said. "That is the number one, two and three piece."
The CDC recently released a Model Aquatic Health Code for swimming pools and spas that includes recommendations for science and safety.
"We don't want people to get sick, but we also don't want people to get injured," he said. "Bad things do happen."
The right kind of disinfectant can help eliminate some of those bad things. And that gets back to the advice related to how pools smell.
The reason an overpowering chlorine smells is bad is because it means the chlorine in the water has combined with something in the water to create a "chloramine," which is then escaping into the air, Warren County's Balster said.
"It's showing that there's something in the pool that it's binding to," he said. "Once it's bound, it's used up."
Chlorine in the water can bind to urine, baby oil and suntan lotion in an effort to disinfect those substances, Yeager said.
When that happens, it means the pool needs more chlorine so that it can work properly as a disinfectant, she said.
That's not to say chlorine will kill everything that can spread disease, Kramer said. It kills many bacteria, but there are some viruses that it can't kill, he said.
And it's more difficult for chlorine to work properly if there are 75 people in a pool designed for 50, he said, because everyone has bacteria on their skin.
"Tell me one place where you put your mouth where other people's butts are?" Kramer said. "It's called a swimming pool."
9 On Your Side News Anchor and Reporter Julie O'Neill contributed to this report.
WCPO Digital Producer Brian Niesz contributed to this report.
WCPO Designer Andrew Briz contributed to this report.