Splash pads are ‘bottom washers’
Four months after the Arlington, Texas, City Council approved a quarter of a million dollar settlement for the wrongful death of a 3-year-old boy who was infected with a “braineating amoeba” at a splash pad, it has come to light that many Dallas-Fort Worth-area cities typically test sanitation levels only once per day — the minimum standard set by the state.
3-year-old Bakari Williams died on September 11, 2021, after being hospitalized with primary amebic meningoencephalitis, a highly rare and generally fatal infection caused by the naegleria fowleri amoeba.
The boy died just six days after visiting the Don Misenhimer Park splash pad in Arlington where the Centers for Disease Control later tested for and found the pathogen.
Subsequent investigation by city officials found that Arlington employees failed to properly maintain the water used in its splash pads. Naegleria fowleri is killed with 0.5 ppm chlorine in five minutes, according to numerous sources.
However, it was found that parks and recreation employees failed to record or in some case not conduct water testing prior to opening at two of the city’s four splashpads, including the one where Williams played. Most importantly, it was found that although the employees were responsible for checking splash pad chlorination levels, inspection logs at the Don Misenhimer splash pad showed that chlorine levels were not documented on two of the three dates that Williams visited. Furthermore, records from the day after Williams visited the facility showed that chlorine levels had fallen below the minimum requirement.
Following the boy’s death, the City of Arlington swiftly acknowledged its mistakes and set about doing better by investing in new equipment and establishing stricter water safety standards in what they called the “Bakari Williams Protocol.”
Among the changes at that splash pad was to test the water three times a day to ensure that equipment malfunctions don’t cause a lack of disinfection.
But Arlington may be among the few DFW-area splash pads that is providing such rigorous checks and balances, an NBC 5 Investigates news channel has learned.
Apparently, the state’s rules regarding water testing at Texas aquatic facilities requires that water testing be conducted only once per day — what some say is insufficient to prevent waterborne disease.
According to the CDC, splash pads should be tested for adequate sanitation every two to four hours that they are open to the public. Texas law, however, requires testing only once per day, and the NBC news channel has reported that many cities are complying with only this minimum standard, and often only prior to opening to the public.
Furthermore, a city manager of nearby Carrolton Parks said they simply don’t have adequate staff to conduct testing any more frequently than is currently being done.
Dr. Roy Vore, a microbiologist and well-known recreational water expert within the pool and spa industry, says that Texas should revise its code and adopt a tougher standard. Dr. Vore, who helped write the CDC’s splash pad guidelines and also sits on the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance Water Quality Committee, says that oncea- day water testing at splash pads is unacceptable and that he wouldn’t let his own children within a mile of these facilities.
He refers to splash pads as “bottom washers.”
“That’s basically what you’re doing,” Vore said. “You’re washing stuff right off kids’ bottoms, and they may not have the best sanitation practices.”
Because of this, chlorine levels can change quickly, making once-a-day testing insufficient, he told NBC.
“That is unacceptable,” Vore said. “That is an unacceptable practice. They need to prioritize their budget and put somebody there to swing by, at least at noon and at least at 4 p.m. And if they don’t have the money to run it, don’t run it.”
But Carrolton city officials insist that their automation systems provide for regular and reliable testing and sanitation, adding more chlorine when needed, and they also have backup UV disinfection systems to kill any pathogens that chlorine doesn’t.
Dr. Vore says that automation systems can fail, they need to be continuously calibrated, and a blockage in the sensor can prevent disinfection.The City of Arlington has learned its lesson — they keep chlorine levels between three to five parts per million and post a QR code at their splash pads that parents can scan for the latest sanitation testing results.
Furthermore, following the wrongful death settlement, part of the city’s mandate is to share the story of William’s death and the “Bakari Williams Protocol” with cities across the country.
Meanwhile, for parents who are concerned about chlorine levels at splash pads outside of Arlington, Dr. Vore recommends purchasing test strips at any pool supply store so they can test the sanitation levels of the water for themselves prior to allowing their children in the water.