In 1998, an outbreak of E. coli at White Water Park near Atlanta resulted in illness for 26 children aged 12 and under, seven hospitalizations for kidney failure, and the death of one child. According to the Center for Disease Control, this tragedy marked an increase in national awareness of the importance of recreational water quality. As for the park itself, it installed automated testing systems throughout and increased chlorine levels from the recommended 2 parts per million to 3.5.
According to the Center for Disease Control, Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs) traced to water parks, swimming pools and water play areas can be caused by a single person who contaminates the entire swimming area. When a swimmer swallows water in a water feature that has been contaminated with E. coli bacteria, the result can be serious and even deadly.
Water parks have a vested interest in maintaining clean water. One outbreak of bacteria-borne disease can cut attendance dramatically and permanently tarnish a reputation. But in many states there’s no government agency making sure that water parks are providing clean water.
The chlorine that water parks use doesn’t kill everything and the time it takes varies. When pH and disinfectant levels are correct, chlorine kills most germs that cause recreational water illness within minutes, but it takes longer to kill some germs, like Cryptosporidium, which can survive for days even in a properly disinfected pool. According to the CDC, because Cryptosporidium has developed a tolerance to chlorine, reported cases of disease from the germ more than doubled from 2004 to 2007.
A secondary method of water purification is also necessary for complete safety, and new ones are constantly being developed. Ozone and ultraviolet treatment are two that have been proven effective and are in use at some water parks. As a result of a cryptosporidium-fueled outbreak at an upstate New York water park, New York State requires the use, in addition to chlorine, of ultra-violet or ozone treatment of water in water parks.
There is currently no federal regulatory authority governing the operation and maintenance of water parks. All codes are approved and enforced by state and local agencies. But the CDC is about to release the first part of a “Model Aquatic Health Code” that it hopes will become a national standard. The full Code will cover all aspects of recreational water venues, including guidelines on preventing and responding to recreational water illnesses.