In Toronto, we are lucky enough to have plenty of options. But I can’t be the only parent who shudders every time they see staff at the wading pool don bright yellow suits (like something out of the movie ET), wade in with their big boots and treat the water with chlorine? Then, in July, a toddler in Halton Hills, Ont., wandered away from his picnic spot and stepped on the ground-level metal grate—found at nearly every splash pad across the country to access the pipes—and suffered severe burns to the bottom of his feet. According to reports, the one-year-old spent several days at Sick Kids Hospital.
You can’t help but wonder: How safe are our water play areas?
We are all responsible
Splash pads, spray pads and wading pools are legislated under the provinces and territories, and run by “owners/operators” such as cities, towns, municipalities, organizations like the YMCA, or private companies. There are guidelines, protocols and procedures for design, staffing, chlorine levels and a host of other safety measures. In Ontario, for example, the Ministry of Health requires splash pads to be inspected at least once a year, following guidelines set under the Recreational Water Protocol (other provinces and territories have similar legislation).
When it comes to your child’s safety, however, it ultimately falls to parents and caregivers to keep their children safe. “We all have a level of accountability,” says Barbara Costache of the Alberta and Northwest Territories Lifesaving Society, a national charity providing guidelines and expertise to communities across the country. “There are risks at water facilities; there is no buck to pass. We all have to work together, and look at ways to have fun, safe environments where we can be healthy and active, and stay cool. Be aware of the risks, and promote behaviour that is water-smart.”
Aydin Sarrafadez, Manager of Aquatics for Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation, says parents and caregivers need to supervise. “We could pack the park with lifeguards, but it is still the parents’ responsibility to be in arm’s reach; make sure their children aren’t running around and stay out of the pool when it is being treated with chemicals. The most important preventative measure is supervision.”
Costache reminds parents that a child can drown very quickly in a few of inches of water. “It isn’t enough to be within arm’s reach—you have to be actively supervising swimmers and non-swimmers; you need to be within eyesight, hearing distance, and you should not be distracted.”
For that reason, the Lifesaving Society says lifejackets are a must for children who can’t swim, and you should never put the responsibility on an older sibling. “Our standard for a minimum age of caregiver in Alberta is 13. Every Canadian, and specifically children, should learn basic swim survival skills: how to right themselves if they have an unintended fall into deep water—remembering ‘deep’ is relative to a child who is two feet tall,“ Costache says.
For basic swim survival skills, children can only really grasp the concepts from the age of four onward, she says. “Many people drown without ever having the intention of going in water. Remember: arm’s reach, earshot, in sight and don’t be distracted on your phone.”
Safety in design
Many splash pads, spray pads and wading pools are showing their age and are generally upgraded under capital replacement plans, to address everything from plumbing and mechanical concerns to design issues.
Erica Phipps, Executive Director for Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, hopes that more municipalities will provide shade areas as part of refurbishment. “Wading pools provide significant benefits for children: exercise, outdoor play, cooling on hot days, which is increasingly important given the likelihood of more frequent extreme heat events as a result of climate change. Play spaces can be designed to ensure natural or constructed shade to protect kids from too much sun. There is an evolution happening with playgrounds, but I think it also has to apply to wading pools. Of course, it is ideal for parents to find shade as much as possible, and use large hats and long-sleeved shirts when they can. ”
In terms of the metal grates, Sarrafzadeh says the City of Toronto, which runs more than 100 wading pools and splash pads, has been taking precautionary measures for years. “We didn’t need this story to come up to know that those lids get hot. We started using a rubberized paint that is less absorbent of the heat of the sun, and painting them with bright colors.” Provinces and territories mandate how a splash pad or wading pool is built, under provincial building code regulations.
If you are worried about the design of your wading pool or splash pad, Sarrafzadeh suggests calling your local park staff or the customer service line at city hall.
A clear look at chlorine
The water in our wading pools has to be disinfected. The question lies in how much, how often, and with what substance. “When there is public access to any type of standing water, there has to be disinfectant procedures, otherwise people can get very sick,” Costache says. “Would you rather have eyes irritated by chlorinated water, or pick up a parasite or a nasty disease?
In fact, it isn’t really the chlorine that causes your eyes to get red: chlorine is a highly reactive chemical that immediately transforms with other compounds, attaching to biological matter in the water, producing disinfectant byproducts (DBPs), which can be omitted off the water as a gas, or can hang around the water. These DBPs are the irritants.
In Toronto, the standard amount of chlorine is 5 parts per million, or 5 mg per liter of chlorine; the chlorine gets used up quickly, which is why wading pools test and treat the water so frequently, and at least once a day drain the pool and refill it. The safety suits and boots are to protect the staff, not because chlorine levels are too high. “When the staff first take out the chlorine it is in concentrated, granular form—the smallest gust of wind could kick up and get it in their face. It is important that every young worker goes home the same way they arrived that day,” says Sarrafzadeh.
Phipps thinks that the benefits of a splash pad likely outweigh the risks of chlorine, but this isn’t to say that chlorine gets a hall pass. Research has linked chlorine to the aggravation and onset of asthma (mainly in indoor pools), and can cause irritation. “I would like to see other methods of disinfection explored to potentially reduce our reliance on chlorine,” she says.
Phipps recommends minimizing the amount of time babies under six months of age spend in chlorinated pools. “Their skin is much more permeable, and the chemicals can enter the body through the skin, in addition to being breathed in or ingested. The general rule of thumb is that babies and young kids are more vulnerable to toxic exposures. If we can reduce exposure, we should do so,” Phipps says.
Be vigilant: keep an eye on your kids at all times—not only for water safety— but to notice if their skin gets red, or if they are coughing or have red eyes. Your child could be reacting badly or the levels of chemicals could be wrong in the wading pool.
Protocol at the pad
When it is time to treat the water, respect that staff has a job to do and keep your children out of the water, says Sarrafzadeh. The wait time of 15-20 minutes is to make sure the chlorine is diluted and dissipated.
Plus, children who aren’t potty trained need to wear a swim diaper. “The contamination that occurs with a fecal incident is significant,” says Costache. “Facilities have to shut down, disinfection protocol occurs. And though it seems obvious—try to teach your kids not to pee in the pool. Parents with young children should take them out of the water on a regular basis, and wash their hands after.”
A lot of DBPs can be reduced if the general public showered before and after they use the wading pools and splash pads—the dirtier the water, the more chlorine will be needed to treat it. “Evidence shows that a cleansing shower reduced the DBPs, so you have cleaner, healthier water,” Costache says. Even though there aren’t showers at most splash pads, you can minimize dirt by cleaning off dirty feet and bodies with wet wipes.