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TUPPER: The sickening truth about hotel pools

I don’t think you’ve earned your stripes as a father until you’ve caught your child’s vomit in a hotel ice bucket while standing in the parking lot of an urgent care clinic.

That was the moment for me, at least, when I really became a dad. Once you’ve held a bucket of someone’s vomit or they’ve held a bucket of yours, well, let’s just say you’ve got a bond that’s pretty deep.

But enough about vomit. Let’s move on to something truly disgusting: hotel pools.

OK, not all hotel pools. But an astonishingly significant number of them. I had no inkling of the secret and icky world of hotel pools until I suffered through the ice bucket incident.

It happened when I was in Rapid City a couple of years ago with my family. First, we stayed at the Microtel Inn and Suites; next, we stayed at the WaTiki Waterpark hotel complex. Our kids spent time in the pool at both places.

At WaTiki, there were hundreds of copies of a Rapid City Journal news story stacked on the counter. The story said many hotel pools in the city frequently failed bacteria tests, but it also mentioned a newfangled system at WaTiki that made the pool there much safer.

While we were at WaTiki, the nausea ensued that led to the ice bucket incident. Having read the Rapid City Journal article, I knew it probably wasn’t the WaTiki pool that made my then-4-year-old daughter sick. I suspected it was the Microtel pool.

Back home in Mitchell a couple of days later, our two kids were both diagnosed with pinkeye and ear infections -- that’s two kids, each with pinkeye and each with an ear infection at the same time. I asked the physician who treated our kids if a hotel pool could have been the culprit. She said it was possible.

I contacted the state Department of Health and acquired the water testing records for the Microtel Inn and Suites. Hotels are supposed to test their pools weekly. Over a nine-week stretch that included my family’s time at the hotel, the Microtel pool was deemed “bacteriologically unsafe for swimming” three times.

I thought we deserved to know that before we let our kids jump in the pool. The hotel disagreed. And nobody -- neither the hotel nor the state regulators who oversee hotel pool safety -- made any effort to tell us or make the information publicly available prior to our stay.

Fast forward a couple of years to this winter. I was in Rapid City again, this time with my 4-year-old son to watch his cousins in a state wrestling tournament. We stayed at the Travelodge, where I took one glance at the tired-looking pool and declared it off-limits.

While lounging in our hotel room, I emailed the state Department of Health and asked for recent water-quality testing reports for the Rapid City Travelodge. At first, a bureaucrat told me the records are not public. You can imagine my ire after having already obtained such records two years earlier, but I’ll save that rant for another day. I eventually pried the records free.

During 2013, the Travelodge’s pool area failed 16 of its 52 water quality tests. I wanted to know what consequences the hotel faced for failing tests, so I called Thomas Martinec, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health. The short answer: There were no real consequences.

A hotel that fails a test is supposed to shut the pool down and shock-treat it. After that, the hotel is supposed to show proof that it has passed two follow-up tests. That’s it.

Do hotels actually shut down their pools when they fail a test? Nobody knows for sure. State regulators don’t check. The regulators do inspect hotels once a year, and the inspection includes the pool area, but that’s usually the only on-site visit.

There are about 1,200 licensed lodging establishments in South Dakota, and many have at least a hot tub or a small pool. It’s a huge job to keep all those pools safe. I get that.

But I do expect more from my government. Too often, inspectors get cozy with the people and businesses they’re supposed to regulate. I’ve seen it with gas pump inspections, restaurant inspections and now pool inspections. When I was a reporter and requested inspection records from the state on all those topics, there was hesitancy to provide the information because the regulators didn’t want to shame the businesses.

I wanted to test the attitude of Martinec, the state deputy secretary of health, so I asked him why the state requires hotels to test their pools.

“They’re alerting us of a situation they have with their pool, and then the requirement that they submit the follow-up samples, that helps us to monitor whether they’re adequately addressing the situation,” Martinec said.

Did you notice what he didn’t mention? The people who swim in the pools. They’re the real reason the regulations exist, and their safety should be the constant focus of regulators.

Happily, a solution is at hand. I asked Martinec if pool test results will ever be posted on the Internet, so at least consumers might have the opportunity to find and review the safety records of hotel pools before deciding where to stay. He said an effort to move the records online is under way and could be completed later this year.

If consumers are empowered with that information, it could help prove an old adage attributed to the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that is often cited by champions of government transparency: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Sadly, I don’t think any amount of sunlight will disinfect my memory of what was in that ice bucket.