By Kimberly Railey
As the summer swimming season kicks into full swing, cutbacks in the number of pool inspectors that monitor health and safety standards may put pool cleanliness and safety at risk.
In South Carolina, 18 state inspectors, down from 33 in 2009, must assess more than 6,000 pools this year. In Georgia, the state employed 493 inspectors in fiscal year 2008, compared with 394 this fiscal year. And in Florida's past two fiscal years, the number dropped from 133 inspectors to 124.
The staff reductions highlight the growing number of states whose pool inspection programs are shrinking, mainly because of budget cuts. At the same time, the number of disease outbreaks associated with swimming has increased over the past two decades. Fecal contamination was reported in almost 60% of public pools, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in May.
"We are concerned about these cuts in the programs," says Michele Hlavsa, chief of the healthy swimming program at the CDC. "We expect our restaurants to be inspected, and we immerse ourselves in pools. Why don't we expect pools to be inspected?"
Across states nationwide, environmental health programs suffer from a lack of money, and policymakers do not want to force the industry to pay for swimming pool inspections, says Doug Farquhar, program director for environmental health at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The cuts to programs, some pool safety experts say, could delay or complicate the routine inspections mandated by local and state health guidelines. Fewer inspections will probably increase the outbreak of illnesses such as diarrhea and vomiting that spread in pools with improper chlorine levels, Hlavsa says.
Nearly 60% of pools sampled contained pseudomonas aeruginosa, bacteria that can lead to skin rashes and ear infections, the CDC study found. Less than 2% of the sample detected Cryptosporidium and Giardia, parasites that can spread through feces and cause diarrhea.
Local environmental health programs in states inspect public and semi-public pools periodically to examine their water chemistry, filtration systems and operations. Pool inspectors ensure that chlorine and pH levels are correctly maintained, which can kill most germs within minutes.
In Georgia, the state's number of pool inspectors has fallen in recent years, as the number of pools requiring inspection has continued to rise. During its 2011 fiscal year, 23,137 pools were inspected, an increase from 19,262 pools during its 2008 fiscal year.
"The decline definitely impacts the amount of work we can do," says Maurice Redmond, director of the state's public pools program.
In 2010, a CDC study found that about one in eight public pool inspections led to closures due to serious code violations, such as improper disinfectant levels.
"If this is going on when the inspector is there, what's going on all year given the financial squeeze in budgets?" Hlavsa says.
South Carolina's Recreational Waters Program saw the brunt of budget cuts in 2002, when it lost all general state funds and was slated for closure. Facing a threat of increased insurance premiums, the program transitioned to being entirely self-supported through recreational water fees that year.
Since then, the program has not been immune to budget reductions, trimming its staff from 33 in 2009 to 15 in 2010. Now, there are 18 inspectors.
Cuts in the number of inspectors have not impacted pool operations at the Palmetto Islands County Park in South Carolina, says operations manager Christopher Druce. The park is home to Splash Island, a water park with slides and rides.
"I haven't seen a difference in the number of inspections or quality," Druce says.
Officials in other states say the change is not a cause for concern.
In Florida, the state trimmed the number of inspector positions because fewer pools have been built in the wake of the economic recession, says Patti Anderson, bureau chief of the Florida Department of Health. Inspectors have been able to successfully complete the two inspections required yearly under Florida law, she says.
Up until this year, Pennsylvania required annual inspections for all pools but has since converted to a complaint-based process that determines the pools to be inspected. The state employed six environmental health specialists until 2010 but reduced that number to two this month.
"With the required processes we have in place, we'll be able to do everything we're required to do," says Doug Koszalka, director of the bureau of community health systems at the state's Department of Health.
The two specialists are responsible for overseeing the pools program statewide, which includes 4,800 public pools. Per state regulations, all licensed pools must provide weekly water samples to a private lab, and the Department of Health follows up on any inadequate results.
Not all public pool programs have been affected by declining budgets. In Arizona's Maricopa County, the number of inspectors - 11- has remained constant, says Gregory Epperson, pool inspections program manager for the county's environmental services department.
"We could probably use a few more," Epperson says, "but we haven't lost any."
Ultimately, the responsibility falls to pool operators to ensure that safety and health standards are met, and inspections encourage operators' accountability, Hlavsa says.
"If you have someone looking over your shoulder, you tend to do a better job," she says.
Contributing: Liv Osby, The Greenville News