As members of the Tremont Torpedoes swim team splashed and dove in the pool last month, they had a visitor.
Marie Heppe knelt down to take samples of the water they were swimming in at the Tremont Community Pool.
The routine test by Tazewell County Health Department inspector is one way of ensuring health and safety standards are up to state code. Heppe and her colleagues have launched an initiative to help prevent one of the most common reasons pools have to temporarily close.
A Journal Star review of the 2017-18 records for the roughly 30 pools open to the public in Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Fulton, Marshall, Putnam and Stark counties found that most of the violations, and temporary closures that followed, came from chlorine or PH levels — the measure of acidity in the water — being above or below standards.
Pool officials do regular checks, but county health inspectors also make unannounced visits to verify compliance.
“We were noticing a lot of pool closures were due to the chlorine levels being off,” Heppe said after reviewing her office's database of closures from 2013-17. “Either too high or too low. We decided to do a quality improvement project.”
This project started with Heppe and her co-workers making a clipboard that covered the standards for chlorine and PH levels.
The idea, rolled out last year, will help pool employees stay on top of their water quality checks and understand their importance.
They also contain information on water-borne illnesses and how they can be prevented by keeping proper chemical levels. Another sheet on the clipboard lets pool employees document water quality twice a day.
Heppe said she doesn't know of any other agency using the same approach to aid pools.
It's fundamental information, "the foundations to running a pool" that "should be second nature" to people operating public swimming pools, says Joel Dickerson, director of parks and recreation at the Morton Park District.
He says the clipboards are a nice tool to have, especially for new employees at other pools, and says the Tazewell Health Department has been great at communicating.
“I think the Tazewell Health Department works really well,” Dickerson said. “I think it is almost a partnership rather than a supervisor.”
Dickerson says he has three employees at the pool at all times that are certified pool operators. The state requires that pool operators check the water quality twice every 24 hours, but Dickerson has his pool staff check every hour.
They haven't had a closure for issues with pool-chemical levels all season.
Tremont pool manager Curt Herrin says his staff checks the pool quality every one to two hours, particularly because outdoor pools are more susceptible to environmental changes from rain, sunlight or just the number of swimmers in the water.
“We only had to close the pool once this summer due to a mechanical error with our pumps,” Herrin said, and not at all for chlorine levels. Other than the single mechanical hiccup, the pool has seen a steady rate of patrons this season.
Heppe says the project is ongoing and the department has finished training at outdoor pools this season.
“We do not have enough data right now to truly see if they have had an impact because the season is short,” Heppe said. “We are going to continue to track the amount of pool closures and continue to evaluate the data.”
Heppe said she doesn’t think the clipboard will be a permanent fixture for her job, but it is a starting point for the water quality improvement project.
“As a health inspector, I think a lot of people think we are the bad guys,” Heppe said. “They think we are just there to shut them down. In reality, we do the pool inspections, in my eyes, to help them operate better. Help them prevent water-borne illness. I think the clipboards show we are trying to help and not shut them down.”
Maintaining steady chemical levels is critical to help avoid water-borne illnesses in the summer heat, too.
The Chicago Tribune reported last month case of single-cell cryptosporidium is up 13% per year for outbreaks, according to the CDC. Crypto is a waterborne illness that is frequently found in public pools.
Heppe says so far this summer there hasn’t been a case for crypto in Tazewell County.
“I know crypto is more chlorine tolerant, so it is something that can live in a properly chlorinated pool for a few days,” Heppe said, emphasizing that's why it's important for those who are sick — particularly with vomiting or diarrhea — to stay out of public pools.
The Tribune report cited a recent survey from the Water Quality and Health Council. In it, 24% of respondents said they would go swimming in a pool within one hour of having diarrhea, and 48% reported they never shower before swimming.
“If you have a child you should make sure they are wearing tight-fitting rubber pants as an extra layer of protection from getting that bacteria into the water,” Heppe said.