Cut Would Eliminate Pool Inspection Program in New Hampshire

By NORMA LOVE | May 10, 2011

Resort owner Peter Spanos doesn’t support big government regulations but fears a proposal to eliminate New Hampshire’s public pool and spa inspection program will mean more pool-related illnesses in a state that receives 34 million visits annually.

Spanos, owner of the Shalimar Resort on Lake Winnisquam in Tilton, said that wouldn’t be good for New Hampshire’s image or his business.

“I think it’s important that pool operators and owners of public pools in this state know that there is someone looking over their shoulder, however benign that eye may be,” he said.

The House budget cut would save $139,000. Environmental Services Commissioner Thomas Burack said without the program, people would be at greater risk of gastric illnesses and lung, skin and eye infections.

New Hampshire appears to be unique in using this budget-cutting measure, and some question whether it would tarnish the state’s reputation and hurt its $4 billion tourism industry.

The lone state inspector, Tim Wilson, also reviews construction plans and educating operators, builders and others in the industry on the federal law, intended to prevent injury and death from improperly installed drains.

New Hampshire inspects nearly 1,400 public pools and spas. In the last five years, the state reported 2,211 water quality violations; 313 bacterial and 725 safety, with 224 immediate closures. Manchester, Nashua, Bedford and Merrimack do their own inspections.

New Hampshire hasn’t had any large outbreaks since its program was established in 1989, Wilson said. Cases have involved a handful of people, usually complaining of skin rashes or respiratory problems from poor air quality.

Jennifer Hatfield, government affairs director at the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals, is unaware of any other states proposing such cuts. Hatfield and the National Swimming Pool Foundation have written lawmakers opposing elimination of the program, raising health and safety concerns.

Michele Hlavasa, chief of the healthy swimming program at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also said she hasn’t heard of similar moves in other states, though some municipalities may be considering it. New Hampshire would join a handful of states without programs if it follows through, she said.

South Carolina considered shutting down its program several years ago because of budget problems, but the hotel and motel industry pushed to keep it to avoid increased insurance costs, said Thom Berry, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. The state implemented fees to support the program, he said.

In a 2010 study of four states and 11 municipal inspection programs, CDC reported one in eight public pool inspections resulted in pools being closed immediately because of serious violations such as improper chlorine levels. The most commonly reported recreational water illness is diarrhea.

The CDC has reported a substantial increase in the past two decades of swimming-related illness outbreaks. A leading cause is the Crypto parasite, short for Cryptosporidium, which can live for days, even in well-maintained pools. Crypto cases increased nationally from 3,411 in 2004 to 10,500 in 2008.

Rob Freligh of Nationwide Aquatics Consulting Inc. of Nahant, Mass., said his company has trained 8,000 people in New England over the past 15 years as certified pool operators. He said people don’t understand the intricacies of maintaining the correct chemical balance and pool circulation to kill bacteria.

If bathers get a rash or infection, pool operators call Wilson, the state inspector, to try to pinpoint the cause and offer a solution.

“(Swimmers) don’t expect the danger. They expect the pool to be OK,” said Harold Tillson, a commercial pool builder with South Shore Gunite Pools & Spas Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass. If proper chemical levels aren’t maintained, Crypto – which is tolerant to chlorine – can exist and make swimmers sick, he said.

“Once you get it (in a pool), it is very hard to get rid of,” Tillson added.

The parasite is spread by swimmers who can remain ill for one to two weeks, Hlavsa said.

“People can carry bugs around from pool to pool. When we get into a pool, it’s like getting into a big, communal bathtub,” she said.

A 2004 norovirus outbreak that sickened 189 people was traced to improper pool maintenance at a Vermont swimming club over a weekend when the regular maintenance person was off-duty and usage was at its highest. Swimmers and staff later said the water was visibly cloudy.

The public’s first line of defense is the pool operators who monitor chemical levels, Hlavsa said. Inspectors are a second line of defense, but swimmers can also buy test kits to check pools’ chemical balance before entering the water and can avoid swallowing the water, she said.

“I think we underestimate what it takes to run a pool. It is not as simple as adding chlorine,” she said.

Mike O’Connor, operator and manager of The Village Swim and Tennis Club in Lincoln, believes he keeps his five pools and four hot tubs in good shape, but he worries about those at small motels or condominiums that don’t have trained staff to aggressively monitor the water.

New Hampshire doesn’t require pool operators to be certified.

“You should not go into a hot tub unless the water is crystal clear. Can you tell the difference between a nickel and dime on the bottom of a hot tub?” he said.

State Rep. William Belvin, an Amherst Republican who chaired the House subcommittee that developed Burack’s budget, chafes at the suggestion that the House budget puts public safety at risk.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Morse said he will recommend restoring some money to Burack’s budget, including funding needed for the pool inspection program. Morse, R-Salem, said his committee will take up the department’s budget the week of May 16.

Portsmouth health officer Kim McNamara hopes the state doesn’t expect municipalities to do what Wilson does. Although communities are required to have health officers, not all work full time, she said.

“We just don’t have the resources to take on pool inspections,” she said.

McNamara said she’s dumbfounded that the House would consider eliminating the program.

“In my experience, I probably won’t swim in public pools unless I know them very, very well” if that happens, she said, adding: “I would be leery of coming to New Hampshire and just going anywhere.”

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