MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - There are more pools in the Grand Strand than anywhere else in the state. The South Carolina Department of Environmental Health is responsible for making sure every pool is safe enough for you to jump in, but ensuring every pool is following state law isn't easily done.
Sean Torrens is an Environmental Health Manager for DHEC. His staff checks pools in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg Counties.
"We don't want to spread any kind of recreational water illnesses. We don't want to have materials that are unsafe at the pool. We want to make sure we have lifesaving equipment there," Torrens says about the unannounced visits.
Inspectors have a checklist with 33 items which cover everything from whether the ladder in the pool is secure to keeping chemical levels safe and a working emergency landline phone within 200 feet of the pool.
"Every second counts for a drowning," Torrens says. "You want to make sure phones work, we do not allow cell phones or cordless phones."
It turns out many pools don't have a working emergency phone when DHEC stops by for unannounced inspections. That's an automatic closure for any public pool in South Carolina.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, WMBF News pulled inspection reports for several pools in the Grand Strand. Of the seven reports we obtained, four of the pools were closed this summer for emergency phones not working. The pool at Indian Wells Golf Villas was one of them. HOA President Chick Cavanaugh says they fixed their phone right away.
"We replaced the phone. It was working, but I think someone just took it off of there," Cavanaugh says about the closure. "Or it broke, because it's out in the elements all the time."
Indian Wells was also cited for a gate that didn't close and lock on its own, a danger to any child who wanders into the pool area unsupervised.
"We do have to close them for things that are a lot of times out of their control," Torrens sympathizes, but adds, "that's not going to matter when it comes to someone drowning."
Cavanaugh says his pool is compliant with DHEC regulations.
"As soon as we get the notice on if something is wrong, we fix it," Cavanaugh says. "It gets fixed right away."
According to DHEC reports, several other pools were closed immediately on inspection for emergency phones that didn't work including Waterway Landing in North Myrtle Beach and Hunter's Ridge Swim Club and Highland Ridge in Forestbrook.
The North Myrtle Beach La Quinta Inn accrued a laundry list of serious violations over several different inspections this summer. One inspector found two types of life saving equipment not up to code, an out-of-date pool operator contact and problems with the disinfectant equipment operating.
On the same report, the inspector noted there was "scum" on pools tiles, areas of the surrounding fence were broken and there was exposed wiring near the pool area. The pool also had high levels of Cyanuric acid, a chemical added to keep the sun from destroying chlorine. Just a few weeks earlier, reports show the pool was closed for some of the same serious violations.
We went to see if the pool was following DHEC's order to close. The manager didn't want to talk to us on camera, but said he hired a new pool company to address some of the issues. Our camera did catch people swimming in the pool, even though the latest report said it should have been closed.
Torrens admits the system isn't perfect, with so many pools and a limited number of inspectors.
"We don't have a way of knowing [if the pool stays closed]," Torrens says. "We put signs up that say it's been closed by the health department but at any time someone can come take them down."
Torrens says every DHEC rule you see listed by a pool is the direct result of an illness, injury or death the department feels could have been prevented.
"Somebody did something that we didn't expect to happen. Can we put a rule in place to keep that from happening in the future to protect future generations?"
According to Safe Kids USA, in 2009, more than 5,000 kids were hurt in near-drownings. The group says drowning is the number one cause of death for kids age one to four, which is why it's so important for pools to have gates that close and lock and pool drains and life rings up to code.
In South Carolina, DHEC reports more than 200 residents died from accidentally drowning in a three year span (2008, 2009 & 2010).
Another major concern is water cleanliness. Pool water needs to be perfect so you don't leave with a nasty virus. The chlorine used in pools kills harmful bacteria and protects swimmers against recreational water illnesses or RWIs.
"With a RWI, someone can be symptom free, but still a contaminator," Torrens warns.
Symptoms or not, he says these germs spread quickly.
"A mother takes a child to the water park, someone else gets it and they go to another pool and start spreading it around," explains Torrens.
The CDC says the most commonly reported RWI is diarrhea. It can be caused by swallowing dirty water or swimming in a pool infested with E. coli, norovirus or a hard to kill germ called cryptosporidium.
Graham Faris, Aquatic Supervisor at the North Myrtle Beach Aquatic and Fitness Center, says they use a special device to kill off germs and bacteria.
"A part of our system includes a UV [light], which is not required, but helps the water stay a lot cleaner," Faris says.
Torrens says pools managed by cities or big resorts are generally well kept up because they have a full-time staff dedicated to keeping the water safe. He says it's the pools that rely on volunteers that usually have the most problems, and unless your local pool is completely shut down, you probably have no idea if the water is safe or not.
"At this time, there is nothing in place to notify the public as to what the level of quality of a pool is or isn't at their facility," Torrens admits.
Torrens says posting pool quality information publicly is something his agency has talked about but right now there are no plans to do that.
If you suspect there is a danger at a public pool you swim in, call DHEC and ask an inspector to visit.