How safe is the water at Philadelphia's splash parks?

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Checking chlorine and PH levels at local splash parks as reported by Ally Gorman during Action News at 11 on August 23, 2018.

It's one of the sounds of summer in the city: splash parks sprinkling across town, giving kids a fun way to cool off during the hot season.

But last year, our investigation turned up a potential problem, three sites with detectable levels of bacteria that could make you sick.

Action News recruited Jayme Schaeffer with Suburban Testing Labs again this year.

On July 16, we tested five splash parks and one rock pool: Dilworth Park, LOVE Park, Sister Cities Rock Pool, Herron Park, Shissler Spray Park, and 48th & Woodland.

On site, we checked chlorine and PH levels and then back at the lab, we looked for signs of unsanitary water.

Richard Stump, president of Suburban Testing Labs, said the splash pad at the brand new LOVE Park was most alarming.

It came up with an almost undetectable level of chlorine and a high level of coliform, that's a group of bacteria that includes E. Coli and some unharmful organisms, as well.

The state limit for total coliform in a public bathing area is two colony-forming bacteria per 100 milliliters. LOVE Park's result was greater than 201.

"So it indicates the possibility that if you got that water in your mouth or consumed it somehow, it could potentially make you ill," Stump said.

Last year, the interactive Fountains at Dilworth Park tested 165 total coliform.

This year, it was 10, higher than the acceptable level, but a huge improvement, and the level of chlorine was where it should be.

The rock pool at Sister Cities shows total coliform of 8, but also acceptable chlorine levels.

Stump said that means the water is being disinfected, it just might not have killed off some bacteria by the time we tested.

Herron Park which failed last year, passed this year. 48th and Woodland also passed.

Shissler Park tested 18 total coliform and the chlorine was just at the acceptable level.

The Center City District is in charge of Dilworth Park and Sister Cities. Their water treatment protocols are posted online, which include testing three times a day. In a statement, a spokesperson says they are constantly adjusting chlorine levels especially on hot, crowded days like the day we visited.

Philadelphia's Department of Parks and Recreation oversees Shissler and LOVE parks.

They released a statement-- along with the Philadelphia Water Department-- in part saying LOVE Park fountain "is still in the commissioning phase." They also say that "bacteria often occur in clumps and so one sample could have a high number, the very next sample could be low in number."

At Suburban Testing Labs, Stump agrees different samples can yield different results, but he says the expectation is that water meets the standard at all times.

Action News requested to speak to someone in person at the Department of Parks and Recreation, but was told no one was available.

FULL STATEMENTS:

Statement from Center City District President and CEO Paul R. Levy On Water-Safety Testing and Treatment Protocols

The Center City District values the trust parents put in us to ensure the safety of water in our play fountains and follows industry-recommended best practices for proactive water-safety management at Sister Cities Park, Dilworth Park and John F. Collins Park.

CCD staff tests the water features in our parks three times each day. Using a professional water-testing kit, recommended by water treatment experts Klenzoid Inc. of Conshohocken,

CCD staff checks the cleanliness of the water as well as the presence of safe and appropriate levels of chlorine to prevent the growth of bacteria. If there are any imbalances or deficiencies in chlorine levels, CCD staff immediately address the situation on-site.

Klenzoid is also under contract to visit each park twice every week, to independently take samples and send them to a certified laboratory to culture water samples to check for bacterial growth. Kits available in commercial stores are unable to provide the accuracy of these laboratory tests, which require several days of monitoring and evaluation. The results of these tests come directly to CCD; if a report shows any problems, CCD staff take immediate corrective action.

While we consistently work to maintain the highest levels of water safety in all of the CCD-managed fountains and water features, each day hundreds of children of all ages, including toddlers in swim diapers, play in the park fountains and in Sister Cities' wading pool during the summer months.

Therefore, in addition to routine testing, CCD has assigned pond/fountain attendants to Sister Cities Park and Dilworth Park. These attendants ensure safe play in the water and are directed to immediately ask parents to remove children from a fountain or water feature if they witness unsanitary situations or behaviors so the water feature can be briefly closed, cleaned and treated.

As we note in our water treatment protocols statement on our website, the CCD makes a major effort to ensure the safety of families and children by having trained staff do water quality testing three times every day at Dilworth Park and Sister Cities Park in the summer months and having outside water quality specialists do their own independent testing twice each week. Each time, we take into account the weather and the daily temperature, as chlorine's antiseptic properties break down more quickly on hot, sunny days.

On the day and time that your tests were taken at Dilworth Park and Sister Cities Park, it was nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny, and several hundred children had already visited the fountains in each park and the pond at Sister Cities. On days like that we make constant adjustments to chlorine levels to ensure the water is safe as temperatures rise and large numbers of children come to our parks to cool off. On several very crowded occasions, we have had close the pond at Sister Cities and ask parents to take their children out of the water so we can carry out an effective treatment. So we constantly need to balance between the public's desire to enjoy the water features and our commitment to public safety.

Statement attributed to Philadelphia's Department of Parks & Recreation and the Philadelphia Water Department:

The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (PPR) take both water quality and public safety very seriously. PWD provides the water to Parks and Rec spray grounds through its public water distribution system which is clean and safe to drink at all times. However, when you begin using treated water for recreational activities, the water is no longer considered potable, although it is usually considered safe for recreational use.

When it comes to sampling, even water professionals find that small mistakes in sample collection can make big differences in results, especially since bacteria are everywhere. Also, we find that one sample is not well representative of a pool of water. For example, bacteria often occur in clumps and so one sample could have a high number, the very next sample could be low in number. They are not evenly dispersed in water like a chemical dye would be. Good sampling design would involve collection of several samples from each site.

Coliform bacteria would trigger the most concern, but it is good that E. coli were not detected. Coliform bacteria, not E. coli, can come from people, pets, vegetation, soil, streets, shoes, etc. This would not be acceptable for drinking water but would be acceptable for recreational water. Considering that, like the river, people can walk and play in it, but not immerse their head or take water into their mouths, then most of these results in and of themselves would suggest no problems as long as people used the water appropriately.

Regarding the LOVE Park fountain, it is still in the commissioning phase. Commissioning is a standard post-construction process of correcting, adjusting, calibrating and demonstrating that all the systems - i.e. mechanical, plumbing, electrical, safety, security, treatment - are operating and performing in compliance with the design. There have been issues identified during this phase including one with the chemical tanks, which has caused the fountain to be turned off while the issue is addressed. We hope to have it back on as soon as possible.

Please explain the method for disinfecting the water at splash pads ... how it is tested and/ or treated or what system is set up to ensure the water is kept clean?
Water at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (PPR) spray grounds, similar to water from a faucet or a hose, comes directly from the Philadelphia Water Department. Because water from PWD is already treated and tested, PPR does not perform additional treatment or testing of the water. Water at LOVE Park undergoes a treatment process through an underground chemical tank.

And would you be willing to show us this system?
Not during the commissioning phase, but perhaps at a later date.

It is re-circulated water, correct?
The water at spraygrounds is not recirculated. The water at LOVE Park fountain is recirculated.

Splash Pad Suburban Labs response
Consecutive samples taken from a single location a few minutes apart will often show varying concentrations of bacteria, however, the public bathing place regulations in PA rely on one sample per week to demonstrate compliance. If any sample is above acceptance limits they recommend, but do not require a follow up sample. The expectation is that the water meets the standard at all times, so the testing we performed, although just a snapshot of the water quality at that time is still useful. If there we to be some sort of legal action or enforcement a series of samples would be more appropriate.

I believe the statement below about the "water is no longer considered potable" is very important and supports the message Ali is trying to convey. People using the fountains should be aware that the water coming out of the fountain is not suitable for consumption.

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