RON MATUS, SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER and MATTHEW WAITE
Summertime, and the swimming's easy, but keeping up a pool isn't. Countywide, more than 50 pools flunked five or more inspections.
BRANDON - Few people think twice about public swimming pools. With temperatures soaring into the 90s, their one thought is sweet relief.
But a closer look shows some pools aren't as safe as others.
A St. Petersburg Times review of inspection records for more than 1,300 public pools in Hillsborough County found dozens have been cited repeatedly for water quality problems and/or missing or faulty equipment.
Countywide, more than 50 pools at apartment complexes, condominiums, community centers and hotels flunked five or more inspections in the past six years. Among them: four South Tampa pools threatened with fines or license revocations and a North Tampa pool that offered a primer on algae types.
In Brandon, inspectors found duck droppings in one of two pools at Lakewood Place apartments on Lakewood Drive. At the other, a resident reported "green stuff" and frogs.
Some owners and managers insist their pools have no problems, and many residents seem to believe that what they don't see won't hurt them.
"The only problem we've had is with the spa heater," said Lakewood marketing associate Tarah Price, who lives on the property. "It was engulfed in fire ants, so it wasn't working."
Records, however, show health inspectors have flunked each Lakewood Place pool seven times during routine inspections since 1998 - making them among the worst in Brandon. During the same period, they flunked the Lakewood Place spa five times.
Besides ducks and frogs, inspectors cited algae growth, dirty filters, broken tiles and low chlorine, which could allow disease-causing organisms to fester.
Problem pools put users at greater risk of accidents and drowning.
Every year, more than 100,000 people in the United States are injured in or near swimming pools, according to estimates from the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 1999, 530 people drowned in pools, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pools sicken people, too.
More than 15,000 swimmers have fallen ill from confirmed pool outbreaks in the past decade, the CDC reports. As many as 1.5-million may have suffered without knowing what hit them. Many endured hellish rashes or vicious bouts of diarrhea. A handful died.
In Tampa two years ago, 87 people, including a contingent of high school cheerleaders, found themselves with bumpy, red rashes on their arms and legs after simultaneous outbreaks at two hotels: the Best Western near Busch Gardens and the Courtyard by Marriott on Palm River Road. Inspectors found low chlorine and overloaded filtration systems. Bacteria ruled.
"What it says to us is that we need to improve the operations of our pools," said Michael Beach, an Atlanta-based expert in recreational water illnesses at the CDC.
The Hillsborough County Health Department inspects pools and spas used collectively by tens of thousands of people. At least twice a year, inspectors visit every pool at apartment complexes, condominiums, community centers, hotels and motels, mobile home parks, schools and gyms. They do not inspect backyard pools.
Inspectors flunk pools when they find serious problems. They close pools when they identify imminent health threats.
The Times review included more than 15,000 records spanning six years.
During that time, the average pool flunked 1.1 inspections and the top violators each failed nine. Nearly half of all the pools tested - 645 - never flunked.
Records also show the average pool closed 1.5 times. One, in Plant City, closed 13 times.
Health officials shut down some pools repeatedly, but inspection reports do not differentiate between those that are ordered closed and those that are shut down voluntarily because of problems or repairs.
Records show the most common violation is an out-of-whack flow meter, crucial to keeping filters working properly and chlorine circulating.
Too little chlorine can be a problem. So can too much.
In 1995, four teenage athletes from Clearwater became sick after swimming in an over-chlorinated pool. The symptoms, which lingered more than a month, included breathing difficulties and a high pulse rate.
Inspection reports show pool problems aren't limited to modest complexes like Lakewood Place.
Scruffy apartments make the list of chronic violators. So do middle-class condominiums near WestShore Plaza and luxury apartment homes in Tampa Palms.
"A lot of it is management," said Cindy Morris, Hillsborough's director of environmental health.
Countywide, the top violators flunked nine inspections: the Palm Grove apartments near Temple Terrace; Timber Trace apartments near the University of South Florida; Casa Blanca apartments in South Tampa; and the Brookside apartments and Place One condominiums, both in Central Tampa.
Palm Grove manager Leigh Dingle admitted that keeping up pools is a challenge.
"It's a fact. We struggle," she said. "Come summertime everyone in the business just says, "Oh God.' "
More than 100 children live at Palm Grove, where rents range from $520 for a one-bedroom apartment to $810 for a three-bedroom, Dingle said. On top of that, scores of kids come from neighborhood complexes that don't have pools.
The result: wicked wear and tear.
"We replace things weekly," Dingle said. "It's like our life ring. I can show you a bill where we replaced 50."
Timber Trace manager Jackie Szabo said the nine flunked inspections did not necessarily mean the pool was bad.
"No significant problem has ever been pointed out to me," Szabo said.
Managers at Brookside, Place One and Casa Blanca did not return calls for comment.
Regionally, South Tampa pools have fared worse than pools in many other parts of the county. South Tampa's top flunker had nine closures, compared with seven for Brandon and five for North Tampa.
Inspectors say it stands to reason. Older areas have older pools that need more attention.
Still, Brandon-area pools have their issues.
At Lakewood Place, health inspectors noted the duck droppings in August 2000. The complex hired a trapper. "Only four ducks remaining," the inspector wrote a week later. "Have trapped 23 so far."
In May 2002, inspectors grew so frustrated after repeatedly flunking the Lakewood Place spa for lack of chlorine that it began proceedings to fine the complex. It's unclear from the health department file whether fines were ever meted out, but records show the spa passed its next inspection a week later, then flunked three of its next five.
On paper, the Brandon Swim & Tennis Club shares the title of worst Brandon-area pool, having flunked inspections seven times between 1998 and the first half of 2000. But records also seem to show that the pool has put its problems behind it.
The 40-year-old local landmark has hosted award-winning athletes, such as three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Brooke Bennett. But between 1998 and the spring of 2000, inspectors found it hosting less welcome guests: black and yellow algae.
Subsequent inspections found algae remained a problem, along with low flow rates and chlorine levels. But the problems weren't enough to merit more failed grades.
Since July 2000, the pool has passed seven straight inspections.
"Right now our pool is perfect," said Joe Greenwell, general manager and diving coach.
The pool bottom was painted last winter, which should keep algae from sticking, he added.
Also on the Brandon-area top troubled pool list: Baymont Inn & Suites on Falkenburg Road; Hawaiian Isles mobile home park in Ruskin; and Camden Providence Lakes apartments, Plantation Key apartments and Brandon Oaks apartments, all in Brandon.
Maintaining a pool is harder than it looks, said Ed Malone, Camden's regional manager.
"Sometimes it's an issue of timing," he said. "If the inspector comes on Monday morning, after people with suntan lotion and whatever else have used the pool all weekend, he's going to find a chemical imbalance."
And if the inspector shows up on Friday, when chlorine is added to prepare for the weekend, levels might be too high.
"So you're kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't," he said.
The Baymont Inn pool is maintained by Positive Pool Service, which visits three times a week. Inspectors have repeatedly cited it for algae growth, but Positive employee Neil Troost said they were mistaken. He blamed the problem on a pitted finish.
At Brandon Oaks, new management took over in September 2002, and the pools have not flunked an inspection since.
Officials at Plantation Key who are familiar with the pool could not be reached for comment. Managers at Hawaiian Isles did not return a call.
Beach, the CDC expert, said pool operators would clean up their act if people found out the truth. He offered one suggestion for getting better compliance: Post inspection reports where swimmers will see them.
"We want (pool users) to start asking questions: "Why is this? You're not protecting my health.' '
- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.