Plop, plop: Pool poop spoils outing


Be warned: I'm going to talk about poop in public pools, so if you're fainthearted, stop reading. But if you love– or, alternatively, are compelled to endure– the combination of hot sun, cool water, and kids, keep reading.

Courteney Stuart, Hook senior editor, went to the Washington Park pool on a Sunday in early June with her husband and nearly three-year-old son, Max. They arrived about 4:45pm, and Max, clad in a swim diaper, got in the pool with his father.

"Before I even had time to take my shorts and shirt off," Stuart e-mailed me, "the whistle blew and [they] forced everyone out of the water. Turns out some kid had had a toileting accident in the pool.

"Well, Max was crying (as were a lot of other kids who'd just gotten there), and then they closed the pool for the rest of the day. As disappointing as that may be, it got worse. When we went to the counter (we'd been there less than five minutes and, as county residents, had paid $11 to get in), we were told that not only would there be no refunds, but there would be no passes issued so we could come another day.

"It's ridiculous that the city hasn't empowered its employees to give passes to people who never get to swim because of somebody else's lack of potty training. And why does one poop contaminate a whole chlorinated pool?"

Probably because of incidents like the E. coli outbreak at a water park in Atlanta several years ago; one child died, and more than two dozen got sick. As Dave Knoop states, in "Winning the Bacteria Battle" (, "Most people are unaware that swimming pools and water parks could provide a mass distribution source of the E. coli 0157-H7 strain," which is a potentially deadly form of the bacteria.

I talked with Von Ward, assistant manager at the Washington Park pool, who gave me a short course on chlorine and the protocol that kicks in when a child poops in the pool.

First, they have to clear the pool, locate the offending object, and remove it (as my friend Jim would say, multi-mega-ugh!). Then they have to re-chlorinate all 300,000 gallons of water. Normally, the chlorine level should be 2 parts per million; on a hot day, however, the chlorine can dissipate and drop the level to 1.5 ppm. (All this, mercifully, can be determined via computer.)

To kill all bacteria, the chlorine level has to get up to 4 ppm before it can be dropped back to normal, which usually takes an hour– but, in high heat, can take up to two.

That's why the pool, which otherwise would have closed at 6pm (this was before the pools were open all week for the season), closed a little more than an hour early. But what about Stuart and her husband and child, who paid $11 and got nothing in return?

Ward said that earlier on the day I called, the City had decided to revise its policy in such situations. From now on, patrons who are forced to leave early will get rain checks; if Stuart asks for Ward next time she goes to Washington Park, she and her family will get in free.

This subject wasn't a new one to me. Two years I ago, I protested mightily over the Homestead's policy of allowing children in the mineral baths at Warm Springs, especially children too young to be toilet-trained. Up to that point, they'd allowed kids under three to come in if they were wearing a swim diaper.

As I learned by perusing the Centers for Disease Control's website, however (, the CDC does not consider swim diapers to form an adequate barrier against contamination, especially if the child has an episode of diarrhea– which, of course, can happen with no warning and not even be detected until later.

The Homestead changed its policy (which now allows no children under three, and children under 16 can use the pools only between 10am and noon), but the City of Charlottesville still allows swim diapers in its pools.

In a world where E. coli outbreaks are becoming more frequent, the answer may lie in banning children under three entirely from public pools and water parks. That would make a lot of people unhappy– but might, in the long run, also keep them healthier.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902.