I-Team: No chlorine, no problem! City passes failing Houston pools


by Jeremy Rogalski / Chief Investigative Reporter, 11 News I-Team


Posted on August 30, 2010 at 10:00 PM

Updated Tuesday, Aug 31 at 11:16 AM

HOUSTON—As it stands now, a publicly-used swimming pool could be missing critical safety items, and the Houston Department of Health can’t do much about it.

That’s what the 11 News I-Team discovered after reviewing hundreds of pool inspection reports. Those reports repeatedly showed pools with missing life preservers, body hooks and emergency phones were given passing grades on inspection. Pools with substandard drain covers also were passed.

The reason? Those safety features are not included in Houston’s 25-year-old swimming pool ordinance. While they are covered under state and federal law, the city has no enforcement jurisdiction, and inspectors can only recommend compliance, but not write a citation for the violation.

But the I-Team discovered the city also is passing pools when they fail for something that is covered under local law. It’s something that can make you and your family sick—substandard chlorine levels. City code requires a minimum level of one part per million, but inspectors routinely were ignoring those rules, and giving passing grades to pools tested at 0.0, or no chlorine at all.

"It is not a responsible situation by the health department to allow that to continue without a re-inspection," said University of Arizona Professor Dr. Charles Gerba.

In the world of waterborne illness, the microbiologist is known as Dr. Germ.

"If there’s no chlorine in the pool, it should be closed right away to the public, because you’re inviting a situation where disease spread can occur among swimmers," said Dr. Gerba.

Without chlorine, bacteria, viruses and parasites not only survive, but thrive, making the pool "a microbial soup," health experts say.

The effects to your body can be beyond unpleasant, according to Dr. Cynthia Chappell with the University of Texas School of Public Health.

"Vomiting, diarrheal illness, you really feel awful," said Chappell.

Worse, Dr. Chappell said, even a clean-looking pool can be deceiving.

"The water can look completely clear and still have high concentrations of these organisms," Dr. Chappell said.

The result is the average recreational swimmer would have no idea that a pool poses a threat of waterborne illness.

The I-Team took its findings to Patrick Key, Bureau Chief of Consumer Health Services for the City of Houston.

11 News: "Why would the health department be allowing something so unhealthy?"

Key: "As I told you, I can’t explain it. It was from a previous management that told the inspectors to do that"

11 News: "Does it make any sense to you?"

Key: "It does not make any sense to me."

11 News: "Is it acceptable?"

Key: "No."

11 News: "You’re changing it."

Key: "Yes."

Key said the one explanation he received from his predecessor was that chlorine levels are easy to change and can be corrected quickly. However, Dr. Gerba said a public health agency should not take the property owner’s word for it. Gerba advised to close the pool immediately, and reopen it only after it’s re-inspected, retested and proper chlorine levels are restored.