TYLER, Texas (KETK) – Splash pads are sometimes thought of as a safer alternative to a traditional public pool due to the decreased drowning risk. The spray-infused recreation areas require a lot less water than a swimming pool, but federal agencies say the interactive summer attraction can pose its own set of health hazards.
SPLASH PAD-RELATED ILLNESS
Many splash pads function using water that recycles back into the system, which raises concerns about germs being circulated in the water if it’s not properly disinfected, as this CDC animation illustrates:
The CDC considers splash pads to have an elevated risk of recreational water–associated illness, as they are “often used by smaller children who are likely to increase the risk of water contamination occurring” and are more likely to suffer severe illness if they become infected.
But splash pads aren’t the only aquatic venue with this designation– the CDC also considers therapy pools and wading pools to have elevated risk of illness as well.
In 1999, roughly 2,100 people got sick with a microscopic parasite known as Cryptosporidium after playing in an “interactive water fountain” at a beachside park in Florida. In New York in 2005, over 2,300 people were infected with Cryptosporidium after using city splash pads, which public health officials found to be unregulated. In both those cases, changes were made in an effort to prevent future illness.
A cautionary tale of splash pads that hits home for Texans is the case of 3-year-old Bakari Williams, who died after being infected by a brain-eating amoeba at an Arlington splash pad. The city settled with his family in 2022 and created “The Bakari Williams Protocol,” investing in various health and safety improvements, including technology that shuts the water off automatically when readings are not in acceptable ranges.
REGULATIONS VS. RECOMMENDATIONS
The state of Texas has regulations for splash pads, but in many cases they don’t match CDC recommendations.
For example, the state requires chemical testing once or twice a day for chlorine or bromine and pH levels in splash pad water, depending on the equipment used. However, the CDC recommends testing those levels every 2-4 hours while splash pads are open.
All splash pads constructed or remodeled after May 1, 2010 in the state of Texas must have equipment that provides automatic, continuous disinfection and maintains the required pH while the splash pad is open. Splash pads created after May 1, 2010 have regulations including:
- Be able to automatically adjust chemicals
- Be installed, maintained, operated and repaired using manufacturer’s instructions
- Have make-up water supply lines to chemical containers that have an air gap to prevent potential contaminants
- Be designed to prevent siphoning
- Have features that will prevent chemicals from feeding directly into the splash pad, pipe system or water supply in the event of equipment failure or malfunction
- Have a supplemental water treatment system to protect people against Cryptosporidium
Splash pads created before May 1, 2010 that are still in operation don’t have to follow the specific guidelines above. For facilities created after that date, the state says they are required to keep chemicals and pH at specific levels at all times the splash pad is open. They can either install a supplemental water treatment to protect against Cryptosporidium or check for the parasite every 14 days.
These state regulations do not apply to splash pads that use freshwater from a natural source and drain the freshwater back into the same natural water source.
It’s important to note that certain regulations are set by the state, but local municipalities can impart more strict regulations on splash pads they control. The guidelines set by the state could just be a baseline for more strict regulations, as is the case for the city of Arlington.
CDC data on aquatic venues from 2016 shows that, when inspected, splash pads don’t have many more violations than your average pool, and showed to have less than some other water-based venues.
The CDC looked at data for aquatic venues from five states, including Texas, New York, Florida, California and Arizona. Their study found that 9.2% of pools, 19.2% of spas, 19.2% of wading pools and 10.1% of splash pads had disinfectant violations when inspected. However, a total of 66 splash pads were inspected, which accounted for the smallest sample size of all the aquatic venues.
Splash pads are required to keep records for a minimum of two years. Records must include certain information about the splash pad’s chemical levels, operation, maintenance, sanitation and cleaning. Some municipalities have records readily available online for public viewing, but the state does not require this.
If you have questions about safety and sanitation procedures at your local splash pad, first identify who is in charge of its maintenance, and contact them with questions.
There are simple precautions you can take to stay safe while splashing:
- Stay out of the water if you are sick with diarrhea
- Shower before getting in the water
- Take kids on bathroom breaks or check diapers hourly
- Never swallow the water
- Never poop or pee in the water
- Never sit or stand on the jets
The CDC explains that, when properly managed and operated, splash pads can be healthy and safe water experiences.