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Wading Pool 2014

From the August 2014 Newsletter:

Wading Pools: the story to date

Now that it’s summer, the wading pools are open....sort of. They close and re-open, close and reopen, every two or three hours. Since Toronto Public Health got much more involved with the wading pools three years ago, these once well-used neighborhood play pools have become a lot less enjoyable for families.

In May, sixteen parents wrote a letter to Dr. David McKeown, Toronto’s medical officer of health (in charge of the Public Health staff), asking for an in-depth conversation about the problems that are caused by the new public health routines at the wading pools. To date he has not responded. So at the end of July, one of the parents contacted CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show, and they ran the story on August 7, followed up by a CBC TV 5 pm news item later that day. Both shows included the story of another parent’s freedom of information request – showing that in the past 20 years, there has been not one incident of infection reported due to wading pools. The TV news item concluded with a quote from public health spokesperson Marco Vittiglio, giving the public health wading pool routines the credit for the “minimized outbreaks of waterborne diseases.”

Sadly, this is another example of the bad science used here by public health. Three years of their new routines don’t explain 20 years of no outbreaks (without most of the routines, for the other 17 years). And the downside of the increase in chlorination is the danger posed by the chlorination by-products, which are suspected of contributing to childhood asthma and even bladder cancer. More information: celos wading pool research.

The July newsletter outlined how institutional fears seem to have given the wading pool unit a form of compulsive anxiety disorder, causing the staff to fear the (safe) wading pool drains and ignore the (real) chlorine dangers. Wading pool management and their public health colleagues continue to avoid any direct conversation about these problems with parents, but there are small signs of change. At some wading pools, some of the time, children are being allowed to stay in the pools while they’re draining, giving them more time in the water. Some of the pool staff have been waiting for four hours before they put in new, icy-cold water. It appears, however, that on the rare hot days this past July, the state of alarm returned. Dufferin Grove wading pool was closed for three hours, for various staff deliberations, on the first really hot day in July. When the children were finally allowed in, there was pandemonium – and the staff seemed pretty rattled. But most days in July have been so cool that there have been, at most, 5 to 10 children in the water. Some smaller parks get no one all day, just two staff sitting there by themselves until the end of their shift. That’s because all the other fun poolside activities for kids were cancelled, so staff can only look at the water. This has to change. During August, the “Rescue our Toronto wading pools” slide show will be shown at Dufferin Grove beside the pool on warm days. And it’s on Facebook too.

From the July 2014 Newsletter:

WADING POOL NEWS

At the end of June the city’s wading pools opened – and closed and re-opened, closed and reopened, every two or three hours or even oftener. (On Canada Day this year, Dufferin Grove’s wading pool stayed open only 10 minutes between two mid-day draining sessions, because the staff felt there was too much sand in the water).

This state of affairs is very new. The wading pool was the summertime heart of Dufferin Grove Park until 2011, when wading pool management was moved to a separate unit with separate staffing. Public Health set new citywide operating rules which became more extreme every year. This year it looks like the wading pool unit may be suffering from a form of compulsive anxiety disorder, much like those troubled people who can’t carry on with their lives because they need to stop and wash their hands all the time.

Two fearful dangers grip the imagination of the wading pool unit staff:
Fear # 1. The possibility that when the pool is draining, children might be mortally injured by the suction of the water going down the drain. Staff quote a tragic case in the U.S. where an uncovered water-pump inlet in a shallow pool destroyed a little girl’s intestines with its powerful suction when she sat on the pump inlet. But Toronto's fill-and-drain wading pools are like bathtubs – they have no suction pumps. For many decades children have enjoyed the tickle when they sit near the anti-siphon drain covers as the water is draining. But since 2011, the new wading pool unit staff are gripped by the fear that draining water is a critical danger even without a pump. At the same time, their other anxieties make them insist that draining must be done often – so that the pools are off limits to the kids half the time.

One of the sad things about obsessive beliefs is that they are not affected by objective data. Even this recent news didn’t help calm the fears of the staff:

Over a period of 13 years, Canada-wide hospital emergency room records show only two (2) injuries attributed to wading pools – in almost 1.5 million child injury reports. Neither of the two injuries were listed as being caused by suction.

Fear #2. If chlorine levels are not kept consistently high, children will get sick or even die from bacteria in the water. In February, Toronto’s medical officer of health particularly warned city council of the dangers of outbreaks of waterbourne illnesses or injuries (including suction) related to wading pools.

Sand and leaves break down chlorine, as does sun screen, skin cells, little kids’ pee, and sunlight. So the staff, convinced of the danger, monitor the chlorine every half hour and add the chemical more often than ever before. They dress up in head to toe hazard gear, underlining the danger of their task. But once again, the data don’t support this fear.

A mother of two young children submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out the actual incidence of infection or injury in Toronto wading pools. She asked about the last twenty years, and got this answer: Communicable Disease Control staff say that “no outbreaks have been associated with recreational water facilities” during that time period. And the city’s Healthy Environments data collection staff said that “they do not track the information being requested because it is not part of their routine data intake.”

So over the past twenty years, and perhaps much longer, there has been no actual documentation of damage to children. And yet, when a group of parents wrote to the medical officer of health in May asking to set up a conversation on the wading pool issue, he ignored the letter.

The conviction of the danger is too gripping to allow rational consideration.

The new wading pool rules are not part of any legislation. Standardized chlorine levels are not even part of any accepted agreement about safety – no study exists showing the right minimum levels of the chemical. What’s more, while the province of Ontario has “guidelines” (since there are no laws) for minimum levels, they told us that they have no limit to the maximum amount that can be added. That decision, they said, rests with the pool operator.

Hypothetical dangers can blind people to dangers that may be more real. There is concern among scientists worldwide that when too much chlorine is added to pool water, it can bond with organic matter (like skin cells, sunscreen, sand) to make some toxic compounds that may be related to childhood asthma and even bladder cancer. The compounds are called “Disinfection By-Products,” or DBPs, and they are formed in chlorinated wading pools. These compounds are monitored in an increasing number of European countries with swimming pools, but not in North America, including in Toronto. (Ontario Health Department staff told us that the compounds are monitored in drinking water only.)

As of May 1, 2014, the revised Province of Ontario Public Health Standard says that Public Health officials “...shall foster community and citizen engagement in the evaluation of programs and services.” But city staff are too gripped by their fears to follow this standard of public discussion in the case of wading pools. What to do? One parent has started a Facebook Page called Rescue our Toronto Wading Pools. To find out more, or get involved, go to the Facebook page.

From the June 2014 Newsletter:

The strange story of Public Health and their citywide wading pool regulations

At the end of June the city’s wading pools will open – and close and re-open, close and reopen, every two hours. Since Toronto Public Health got much more involved with the wading pools a few years ago, these once well-used neighborhood play pools have become a lot less enjoyable for families.

Problems that need to be fixed:

1. Draining too often: new, non-legislated rules devised by Toronto Public Health in 2011 require children to stay out of wading pools for up to 6 times a day, 20 minutes each time, while staff do a partial or complete draining of the pool and refill it with fresh, ice-cold water. Then the pool is re-chlorinated and the kids have to wait another 20 minutes for the chlorine to even out. That can add up to a total of 40 minutes of no pool access each time – or 4 hours a day, out of only 8 hours that the wading pools are open. Public Health staff say that children could be maimed or killed if they stay in the pools while the water is slowly draining out. They quote a tragic case in the U.S. where an uncovered water-pump inlet in a shallow pool destroyed a little girl’s intestines with its powerful suction when she sat on the pump inlet. But Toronto's fill-and-drain wading pools are like bathtubs – they have no suction pumps. For many decades children have enjoyed the tickle when they sit near the anti-siphon drain covers as the water is draining. Even so, Public Health insists that draining is a critical danger – and yet that it must be done so often that the pools are off limits half the time.

2. The danger of too much chlorine: There is concern among scientists worldwide that when too much chlorine is added to pool water, it can bond with organic matter (like skin cells, sunscreen, sand) to make some toxic compounds that may be related to childhood asthma and even bladder cancer. But Toronto’s teenage wading pool staff are given inexact chlorine measurement tools - and there is no upper limit of how much chlorine is too much. Toronto Public Health doesn’t inquire into how many chemical compounds (called “Disinfection By-Products,” or DBPs) are formed in over-chlorinated wading pools.

3. Rule-bound staffing at wading pools: this has replaced the long tradition of park-friendly wading pool staff who also provided pool-side crafts or games activities for kids on cool days when the pool is not busy. Now, staff are told that even if there is no one in the pool, both staff must keep their eyes fixed on the water. Staff who try to do activities with the kids are disciplined.

Inquiries about the evidence backing the frustrating new regulations have been ignored up to now. But here’s something interesting: as of May 1, 2014, the revised Province of Ontario Public Health Standard says that Public Health officials “...shall foster community and citizen engagement in the evaluation of programs and services.” To follow up, park friends wrote a letter to the Medical officer of Health (M.O.H.) on May 19, asking to meet with a public health manager to examine the evidence for the new public health wading pool interventions and to “try out some alternatives that are safe but more program-friendly.” The letter was signed by sixteen people representing nine wading pools across the city.

Up to the beginning of June, there has been zero response to this letter by Public Health. So, as a follow-up, one parent who signed the letter started a Facebook Page called Rescue our Toronto Wading Pools. Another parent filed a freedom of information request about the number of injuries or illnesses attributed to wading pools. (In April the M.O.H. had warned about the many dangers of waterborne illnesses, physical injuries and drowning at the city’s recreational water facilities – including in wading pools. But hospital emergency room records show only two (2) attributed to wading pools in almost 1.5 million Canada-wide child injury reports over 13 years. The freedom of information request should help clarify the evidence.)

Wading pools are explicitly not included in the provincial swimming pool/spa legislation. But Public Health emphasizes their inspectors’ role: “when observing health hazards [they] are required to issue orders to operators/owners to immediately rectify the safety deficiencies and/or order the facility closed.” The list of “safety deficiencies” that public health sees in wading pools seems to be have grown a lot in the past few years.

The revised Ontario Public Health Standard says “The board of health shall engage in knowledge exchange activities with...[among others]...the public regarding factors that determine the health of the population and support effective public health practice...[and it shall]...conduct program evaluations when new interventions are developed or implemented, or when there is evidence of unexpected operational issues or program results....” It will be interesting to find out how to nudge Public Health into following their own standard in this regard. That’s this summer’s experiment in citizen action. To find out more or get involved, go to the Facebook page, Rescue our Toronto Wading Pools.


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