The District of Columbia has failed to make basic safety and sanitation inspections this year of the 231 public and private swimming pools in the city, according to public health officials.
They blamed bureaucratic wrangling and budget cuts for the lack of inspections made routinely in previous years.
City inspectors, who say most pools are in hotels and privately owned apartment buildings, now are responding only to specific complaints of pool users. Many suburban jurisdictions routinely inspect pools before they open for the season and conduct several surprise inspections during the swimming season, according to officials.
While the District government has responded to two or three complaints a week, an official in Fairfax County said routine inspections of its 380 public pools have found about 200 "incidents" this summer that required swimming pools to close for water purification or other safety reasons. A Montgomery County official said routine inspections of its 350 public pools also have found numerous safety and sanitation problems.
In contrast, James Collier, a District health official, said the city received eight public complaints in late July. Those complaints forced the closing of one pool and kept another from opening. The six others were ordered to make immediate safety or sanitation improvements, officials said.
The pool that was closed had soot floating on top of the water. Its cleaning "skimmers" were clogged and there were no depth markings to alert swimmers, Collier said. He declined to identify the pools.
Swimmers can contract diseases from pools that are poorly filtered or have too little chlorine and can develop skins rashes and eye irritations from overly chlorinated water. Inspectors also look for unsafe ladders and diving boards, poor electrical connections, worn safety markings and other structural problems that could cause accidents.
However, said D.C. Environmental Health Administrator James McDermott, "We've no indication that people are getting sick. That's the payoff." But he said the city has no records on the number of pool accidents and injuries because there is no requirement that such incidents be reported. He acknowledged that "we've got to do a better job."
Water safety managers in Montgomery and Fairfax counties said pool operators there are required to report accidents and unsafe equipment.
"We get a lot of those" reports, said Clevo Wheeling, supervising sanitarian for consumer services in Fairfax County. Wheeling said most infractions found by inspectors involve poorly chlorinated water or employes who do not have valid pool operating permits.
Additionally, Fairfax and Montgomery pools must pass annual sanitation and electrical inspections before they are allowed to open, officials said.
All three jurisdictions agreed that poorly chlorinated water is the major health problem at public pools. Officials in Montgomery and Fairfax said another major problem that requires constant monitoring is the high turnover rate of pool employes, most of whom are of college age and working only part time. City officials also acknowledged that the public complaints include numerous allegations that pools are not being operated by licensed employes.
The District's current inspection program is in disarray with files on the city's public pools kept in three cardboard boxes piled on a table in a downtown office of the Department of Environmental Services. They have been there for more than a month.
Officials have been squabbling over which agency within the department should make the inspections. McDermott said he has ordered the Bureau of Consumer Health Services, which currently makes restaurant and pesticide inspections, to take over the swimming pool responsiblity on Oct. 1 from the Bureau of Air and Water Quality, which has not been able to make the inspections because of a staff shortage.
However, consumer health service officials have argued that they too are short staffed and cannot make the inspections either. Consumer officials recently reported that they are making only about half of the food service inspections that were done five years ago. McDermott said temporary help will be hired next summer to help with the inspections, but until then the pools will be inspected only on an emergency basis.
Of the city's 231 pools, about 60 are operated by the District government. Pools owned by individuals and located in the yards of private homes are not subject to inspection, officials said.