To cool off during the sweltering summer, Fran McDowell often takes her 6-year-old grandson Noah to play in the jets of water at several Central Florida splash pads. The interactive water features have become a popular alternative to swimming pools in public parks.
"I think it’s great they set these up for the community, I wish they had them when my children were little," said McDowell.
Splash pads generally provide safe fun for kids and families. But if the water quality is not properly maintained, people who run around in the fountains can become very sick. In 2006, about a dozen children who visited a splash pad in Avalon Park contracted a parasite that caused painful bloating and diarrhea. The Florida Department of Health later determined the water had not been properly chlorinated.
"We have had children and adults get recreational water illnesses here," said David Overfield, an environmental administrator with the Florida Department of Health in Orange County.
That's why the health department conducts inspections of splash pads twice a year, just as the state agency does for public swimming pools, spas and wading pools. Besides making sure all equipment is working properly, the health department also checks the level of chlorine or other disinfectant in the water.
"If the disinfectant level is where it’s supposed to be, the expectation is that there would be no bacteria present in that water," said Overfield.
To find out whether there was contamination at Central Florida splash pads, Local 6 collected water samples from four locations using vials provided by EMSL Analytical Inc., an environmental testing lab. The water samples were taken on Memorial Day, when the splash pads were crowded with bathers. EMSL later tested the water for the presence of total coliform and E. coli.
According to the lab results, the splash pads at Fort Mellon Park in Sanford and Wes Crile Park in Deltona contained no traces of bacteria.
Samples collected from splash pads at Downey Park in Orange County and Veterans Park in Orange City initially tested positive for total coliform and E. coli, which could be an indicator of water quality issues. However, guidelines provided by the lab recommended testing additional water samples to verify bacterial contamination. When more samples were collected and analyzed from those splash pads two weeks later, the results indicated no bacteria in the water.
"Water quality can change based on the bather load (and) how many people are using that facility," said Overfield. "It can change because of the weather. On really hot days or rainy days that can affect the disinfectant level."
Fecal bacteria can also be introduced into the water from dirty diapers, according to the health department.
How can people prevent illness at splash pads?
"Don't drink the pool water," said Overfield.
Although water that goes down the drain is typically filtered, in most splash pads it is immediately recirculated back through the spray jets and fountains. Unlike an Olympic-sized swimming pool, which holds about 660,000 gallons of water, many splash pads contain less than 2,000 gallons.
Overfield also urges splash pad visitors to shower before entering the water to wash off any bacteria. And he said parents should make sure children take plenty of restroom breaks.
"You wonder how many of these little ones go in there, don't have the diapers on, and don't say 'I have to go to the bathroom.' That could be a huge issue," said McDowell as she watched her grandson play in the splash pad at Veterans Park in Orange City. "I do think about it. But I can always smell the chlorine, so I think it’s pretty well maintained."
Daily maintenance log for the Veterans Park splash pad indicate chlorine levels have been kept at an adequate level this summer. That splash pad passed its state health department inspection on May 28.
The splash pad at Downey Park received a satisfactory evaluation from the health department on June 10.