North Carolina’s top public health regulators say they’re looking for a state rule change to ensure public swimming pools can’t open for the summer until inspectors have checked for safety violations.
Currently, public pools – such as those at apartment complexes, YMCAs, rec centers and water attractions – are able to operate with a county permit for up to 60 days before an inspection occurs. All but one of the state’s largest counties say their health departments have adopted their own local policies that take enforcement of health and safety standards one step further: requiring a pre-season inspection before a public pool may open.
Mecklenburg County routinely allows public pools to open around Memorial Day without first inspecting for water quality, functioning equipment and a checklist of other health and safety items. This past Memorial Day, close to 350 of more than 1,000 seasonal public pools welcomed swimmers without a recent inspection.
A Charlotte Observer analysis of hundreds of pool inspection and permit records revealed at least six of those pools allowed to re-open without inspection had been suspended last year for health and safety violations and shut down before summer 2016 ended. County commissioners say they were surprised Mecklenburg’s health department had not adequately tracked failing pools.
Now, the state environmental health office within N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing its list of rules and regulations designed to keep swimming pools and other facilities safe. Larry Michael, chief of environmental health at DHHS, said officials will request an amendment to N.C. swimming pool rules that would require an inspection before a county may issue a permit.
The change likely would affect only one county in a major way: Mecklenburg. Michael said he knows of no other county currently allowing a pool to operate before it passes an initial pre-season inspection.
The Observer’s analysis of public pool records last month showed Mecklenburg County pools with suspended permits at the end of summer 2016 had been allowed to operate for an average 34 days before an inspection shut them down. Michael said state officials moved to propose the new pool inspection rule after hearing about Mecklenburg County’s process.
The new rule would apply to more than 10,000 pools across the state. Private pools, such as those in a family’s backyard, are not subject to the same rules as public swimming pools.
The 60-day allowance window between getting a permit and an inspection would be eliminated for seasonal pools. State regulators first adopted that two-month grace period for pool inspections in 2010. Before that, county health departments had no deadline to complete a pool inspection.
North Carolina’s DHHS public health programs follow rules set by the Commission for Public Health, a 13-member body with appointments from the governor and the state’s medical society.
Michael said the proposed amendment will go through a thorough review process, including discussions with stakeholders – like county health departments, pool operators and academic experts. The proposal will also be subject to a public comment period and a public hearing before going to a vote among commissioners. The process could take months but, if approved, the new rule could be in place before swimming season starts in 2018.
Making sure public swimming pools are inspected before opening, Michael said, will better protect public health. Initial pre-season inspections, combined with surprise visits during the summer, he said, helps lower the chance a pool operator is running a facility with critical health or safety violations. The inspection process includes checks of water quality, pool maintenance equipment, restrooms and locker rooms, pool suction hazards and life-saving devices on site.