Splash pads are everywhere, and little kids love them. These special playgrounds are dotted with nozzles that spray water into the air, and the designs often include whimsical interactive features shaped like flowers, hoops and sea animals. Little water, if any, pools on the surface, making splash pads, or spraygrounds, a popular alternative to swimming pools because they don’t require lifeguards.
But cities and other splash pad operators shouldn’t let their guard down. The tragic death of a child who became infected with a rare disease after playing at a contaminated Arlington splash pad should prompt municipal and county leaders across North Texas to check on their cities’ aquatic features.
Even though splash pads may look safer than pools, these playgrounds also carry risks. They typically recycle water, which can become tainted with germs that wash off children’s bodies.
State law sets standards for how splash pad operators should maintain and inspect these facilities. In the Arlington case, the child who died Sept. 11 became infected with amoeba that officials say likely came from a splash pad where the child had recently played. Arlington city officials have acknowledged gaps in their daily inspection program at two spraygrounds.
The illness that killed the child in Arlington is extremely rare, but that’s no comfort to his family and hardly reassuring to other families whose children frequently use spraygrounds.
Poor maintenance and sanitation at aquatic facilities can make children severely ill. In June, a gastrointestinal bacteria outbreak at a splash pad in Kansas sent several children to the hospital and made dozens of people “violently ill,” according to The Wichita Eagle. And in upstate New York, a sprayground at a state park was responsible for the spread of cryptosporidium, a parasite that made more than 1,700 people sick in 2005. That case was so notorious that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention references it on its webpage on keeping water play areas clean.
An outbreak of the same diarrhea-causing parasite hammered North Texas in the summer of 2008, when Dallas County officials linked about a quarter of crypto cases to spraygrounds.
Today, the city of Dallas manages at least 17 spraygrounds. A city audit in 2016 revealed inconsistency in the inspection recordkeeping of municipal spraygrounds, and Dallas Parks and Recreation committed at the time to make improvements. Sprayground season ended in September, but city officials must ensure that these features are safe when they reopen next summer by checking that staff are properly trained, that they’re following rules and that equipment is working as required.
Lax oversight costs taxpayers. The incident in Kansas sparked a 47-plaintiff lawsuit.
But the people who pay the ultimate price are the families whose children end up in a hospital. City officials must do everything in their power to protect them, and that includes basic, rigorous maintenance of public water features.
Dallas Morning News