Testing what is in the water at splash pads

Splash pads across the state are required to follow rules for water safety and to prevent disease. (WTHR Staff)
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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — 13 Investigates is keeping you safe by testing water quality at local splash pads.

For parents, splash pads are a place where their kids can have fun for free.

"He just enjoys getting wet. He loves puddle stumping," said nanny Debby Nicholas about the children she watches.

"We like to take advantage of all the free things we have in Fishers. So, here we are," said Allison Manion, a parent.

But when we asked those women if they ever wondered what's in the water...

"Is it just like the regular water from the pool?" asked Niki Heckler, a parent.

Testing the water

We conducted tests at four splash pads in early July by collecting water samples in sterilized bottles and asking an Indianapolis lab to test the water.

Micro Air Inc labratory tested for four things: Chlorine, Coliforms, E. coli and Heterotrophic Plate Count:

Relationship between types of bacteria. (Washington Dept. of Health)
  1. Chlorine is used to disinfect the water. Too little is not effective and too much can irritate skin and cause breathing problems.
  2. Coliform bacteria itself is unlikely to cause illness. But their presence is a sign that disease-causing organisms (pathogens) could be in the water.
  3. E. coli is a test for fecal contamination. E. coli is a diverse group of bacteria and most are harmless. Some live in the human intestines while others can cause illness.
  4. Heterotrophic Plate Count (HPC) estimates the number of live heterotrophic bacteria in the water. These bacteria do not normally grow in chlorinated water and may indicate water treatment is not working well.

Test results

Billericay Park - Fishers

The water treatment system at Billericay Park in Fishers automatically monitors the level of bacteria and adjusts the chlorine level accordingly. (WTHR Staff)

We were surprised to learn total coliforms were present in our sample taken at 10:15 a.m. on July 2, 2019 at the Billericay Park splash pad in Fishers.

Micro Air Inc laboratory manager Betsie McAfee analyzed the results and wrote an email summary saying coliforms include "bacteria derived from feces, but also bacteria that grow in soil and water. Sources of coliforms in the pool water can be from contamination in the pool or run off entering the pool, perhaps from bathroom floors or pool-side diaper changing."

"That's horrifying to me. That's gross. I have no other words. That's completely disgusting," said Manion.

"It's gross," said Matt Wallis, a parent.

"I did not expect to find out that there's stuff in it," said Heckler.

The test also found free chlorine at 2.0 ppm when the Indiana State Department of Health requires it be no lower than 3.0 ppm.

Lawrence W. Inlow Park - Carmel

Our water sample from the splash pad at Inlow Park in Carmel was startling.

The lab determined the 9:54 a.m. sample from July 3, 2019 was present with total coliforms and E. coli. That could make you sick.

"E.Coli is from human feces or animal feces and it is harmful to your health," said McAfee.

We asked a doctor about the concerns of finding E. coli present.

"Some (E.Coli) cause travelers diarrhea, some of them can cause more significant diseases where kids have kidney failure and bloody diarrhea and it's actually quite a severe disease," said Dr. Christopher Belcher, St. Vincent Pediatric Infectious Disease specialist.

Indianapolis splash pads

Some splash parks, like Indy Park's Grassy Creek, are non-recirculating, meaning the water runs through the facility and into the waste water system. (WTHR Staff)

The water at two Indianapolis splash pads tested "very clean" according to Micro Air, Inc.

The free chlorine levels at Wakefield Park's splash pad (0.6 ppm at 10:20 a.m. on July 3, 2019) and Grassy Creek Park's splash pad (0.3 ppm at 11:30 a.m. on July 3, 2019). Indy Parks told 13 Investigates the reason why the levels are lower is that those two splash pads are non-recirculating and use the public water supply which is not treated with chlorine.

The Micro Air, Inc laboratory tests water from more than 400 pools each week. (WTHR)

“At facilities with chemically treated water (pools and the Tarkington Park spray ground) we test as required and use a chemical controller that records levels,” said Ronnetta Spalding, Indy Parks spokesperson. “As an example, when the chlorine levels are low at Tarkington Park, which is our only recirculating spray ground, the system will shut off and will not restart until the chemicals are within appropriate ranges.”

Making changes

We shared our findings with Carmel, Fishers and Indianapolis to get their response to the lab results.

Carmel

13 Investigates met with the director of Carmel-Clay Parks and Recreation.

"The day we learned about the results of your test we immediately got out here to validate and make sure we were providing a safe environment for the public," Michael Klitzing said.

Klitzing showed us the equipment that tests and recirculates the water at the Inlow Park splash pad and said subsequent tests have found no problems.

"We're always concerned about the safety of the public. When you told us about (the test), we did our own independent testing and brought our consultants from Carmel utilities and another lab. They did testing and found chlorine levels at appropriate levels as well as no bacteria including total coliform or E.coli in the water," Klitzing said.

As a result of the WTHR investigation, the Carmel-Clay Parks and Recreation ordered weekly bacteria testing at the Inlow Park splash pad. Klitzing said that change of policy came before the Hamilton County Health Department told his department to conduct weekly bacteria testing on recirculating splash pads.

Klitzing told Eyewitness News that Carmel-Clay Parks and Recreation had been following old standards posted on the Hamilton County Health Department website. Klitzing has now ordered workers to increase the chlorine requirement from 2.0 ppm to 3.0 ppm which now meets the minimum requirement by the Indiana State Department of Health.

"This does not create any issues for us since we consistently have chlorine levels exceeding 3.0 ppm," Klitzing wrote in an email to WTHR. "Every now and again, we do find levels that dip a little bit below. Staff immediately takes correction actions and adds appropriate chemicals or whatever the action may be necessary. Tests overall have gone very well. We're generally finding that we're above state's requirements for splash pads."

Fishers

Fishers officials also took action following our investigation that found total coliforms present and a 2.0 ppm measurement of free chlorine. That is below the 3.0 ppm minimum required by the Indiana State Department of Health.

"Your report definitely created a lot of discussion," said Deputy Mayor Leah McGrath.

She defended the water quality at Billericay Park splash pad.

"We have built into all of our splash pad systems technology that is testing the water for bacteria 24 hours a day," McGrath said.

McGrath said the splash pad technology is constantly recalibrating and the chlorine levels could change hourly.

"If you had gone back an hour later or two hours later, the reading may have been slightly different," said McGrath. "If you get a measurement of 2.0 ppm, an hour later it might be 3.0 ppm or 3.5 ppm because it's constantly recalibrating to make sure those levels are within acceptable ranges."

McGrath said Fishers leaders want to learn more.

"We want to make sure we're giving our residents the highest quality and the safest experience," McGrath said. "Our system tests bacteria. Then, the people who work for us, go out every other day to test chlorine and pH balance. I've got a strong level of confidence in that system and the technology and the staff monitoring it."

Following our investigation, McGrath acknowledges that Fishers now requires higher chlorine levels at its splash pads, increasing the minimum level from 2.0 ppm to 3.0 ppm.

"There was a change in the county. I don't think any of us knew about that. So, now we know about it and we're going to try and adhere to what they define," McGrath said.

The deputy mayor, who is a mother of three children, feels confident in the water quality at Billericay Park.

"I would allow my kids to play in that water," McGrath said.

Reaction to the changes

Hearing that Fishers and Carmel officials were increasing chlorine levels in the splash pads was welcome news to the laboratory manager who tests more than 400 pools every week with 5 percent failing.

"I think that's the right answer. I think that'll help them maintain a level that's appropriate to kill the bacteria," McAfee said.

Dr. Belcher said children who have been vomiting or diarrhea should not play at splash pads. He said swim diapers are not adequate to hold in a stool.

Dr. Belcher encourages parents to use their eyes and nose when they arrive at a splash pad.

"The water should look clean and smell like chlorine. If it's not there, maybe there's a problem so you may want to ask whomever is managing that splash pad," said Dr. Belcher.