The summer heat has bled into September, where the temperature since Labor Day has set record highs. The concrete and steel that line the streets and scrape the sky has done little to shield us from the humidity.
Near City Hall, the best place to escape from the weather has been Dilworth Park, where the hundred-plus individual mini fountains have created one of the most unique and interactive water displays in the city.
Thousands of Philadelphians walk through the Dilworth fountain each day, with many taking a break from the heat to dip their feet, their hands and their faces into the refreshing water. A steady flow of children routinely use the fountains as a personal splash park, soaked head to toe by the end of their frolicking sessions.
It’s beautiful to see, and from the Billy Penn offices that look down upon the park from 15th Street, the fountain has proven to be a wonderful addition to the City Hall frontage.
Until we saw a gentlemen washing his undercarriage in one of the sprays.
And the dogs.
And the babies with diapers.
And the babies … without diapers.
It’s hard to get those images out of your head — especially the human ball washer, let’s be honest — when overheated delegates in town for the DNC gaily doused their faces to keep cool, or when parents sit by the side of the installation and watch as their youngsters steal swallows from the streams.
That got us wondering, what’s in the water at Dilworth Park?
(We kind of wish we hadn’t wondered.)
There’s coliform bacteria in the water
After consulting with a contact in a related industry, we decided to test the water. We purchased a home water test kit from a big-box hardware store.
As you can see by the image above, the water at Dilworth Park contains more than 20 colonies per 100 mL of coliform bacteria, which can — but may not — include e coli and other bacterias commonly found in feces. (Let’s stress ‘can’ but ‘may not.’ But also may, and might.)
According to TheWaterProject.org, coliform bacteria can be dangerous, as “diseases acquired from contact with contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal illness, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections. The most commonly reported symptoms are stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and low-grade fever.”
This was, to say the least, alarming. But should it be?
“There is no e coli in the water,” Paul Levy (no relation), CEO of the Center City District, told Billy Penn. “We have found some of the contaminants that come in water like that all within the safe limits. We’ve increased the chlorine levels and every professional test we’ve had has shown no sign of contamination.”
“That said,” Levy continued, “kids should not be drinking from the fountain.”
How much bacteria is OK?
Since Dilworth Park is maintained by the Center City District, Levy’s group is charged with maintaining the quality of the water every day.
“We have a professional firm do weekly samples and send them to a state-certified lab once a week,” Levy said. “If there’s anything we found that, as you say, would be contagious we would immediately empty and drain the fountain.”
Whether the bacteria in the water is fecal or not — no, we never expected to write that sentence about a Philly park any more than you expected to read it — the beautiful fountains outside City Hall, where little kids lay and play and splash and drink every hot day of the year, has an unsafe-for-consumption amount of crap in the water. Per the CCD, thankfully not literally.
(Full disclosure: While our tests didn’t show how much crap is present, we do know how much crap is too much crap. Again, do not drink the water.)
Per the Environmental Protection Agency website, the existence of any coliform bacteria in drinking water is unacceptable, per the rules, regulations and laws the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania enacted in 2012. In a call to the EPA Safe Water Drinking Hotline to ask about the rules for public display fountains – that, like Dilworth, make it easy for young children to drink public water – we were told that the desired goal is to have no coliform bacteria present in drinking water, but EPA regulations in Pennsylvania state that no more than 5 percent of testing samples can contain coliforms per month.
(Yes, there may be crap in our drinking water too, but that’s another test for another day.)
The EPA maintains different standards of water quality for different states, but in Pennsylvania, the water quality standards indicate that:
“During the swimming season (May 1 through Sept. 30), the maximum fecal coliform level shall be a geometric mean of 200 per 100 milliliters (ml) based on a minimum of five consecutive samples each sample collected on different days during a 30-day period. No more than 10% of the total samples taken during a 30-day period may exceed 400 per 100 ml.”
Our experiment was understandably flawed, as we purchased just one $25 home test, a relatively rudimentary assessment that only indicates there is more than 20 per 100 milliliters present.
Again, the test of the Dilworth water came back positive for coliform bacteria, but failed to provide a specific reading. The test, from the brand H2O OK Plus and purchased at Lowe’s, also fails to indicate whether the coliform bacteria present in the water is, indeed, fecal. (Further independent testing is necessary to determine the amount of coliform bacteria per milliliter and what types of coliform bacteria is present, but Levy stressed it is not e coli, and well within legal guidelines.)
And yet e coli or not, do you want to take the risk? Moreover, do you want your kids (and your DNC delegates) putting their faces in that?
The rules vs reality
The sign at Dilworth is very clear. No bathing. (We’ve seen bathing.) No pets. (We’ve seen pets.) No food. (There is always food.) No children without swim diapers. (We’ve seen children and seldom see any swim diapers.)
Nowhere does the sign say “No drinking,” which one would think is common sense given it’s a public park in an outdoor space that people and animals walk on, but I once saw a fast food wrapper that had a dotted line on the inside with the words “Place Sandwich Here”, so surely every public park isn’t always full of geniuses. In this case, the concern is what’s coming out of those fountains, and what’s the acceptable level of coliform bacteria in non-drinking water that people and pets totally put in their mouths.
“Understand that we’ve had a whole new group of people come into the park this year,” Levy said. “Your call caused us to go look how other parks go do things and it was constructive, and we found very appropriate language from other parks. We will come up with language for next year.
“We were having up to 50 or 60 kids there when they were out of school, so we are definitely adding that in for next year, so you’ve highlighted an important issue.”
The CCD will also increase staffing in the park during peak times, and have staffers be more direct with kids using unsafe practices.
Chlorine and water treatment
Levy said that on hot days, the CCD ups the chlorine level, like how one would maintain a home pool. When we conducted our tests, we expected to find high levels of chlorine (there was no choline at all in our test results) or an elevated amount of iron, copper or lead. Even the pesticide test came up negative. (That’s a good thing.) The only result outside of safe range per our home water test was for the coliform bacteria.
“We have several things,” Levy said when asked about the low chlorine levels in our test. “All the water is recycled. Underground, we are also treating it in other ways that are not chlorinated, another form of killing bacteria, so it’s constantly recycled and constantly being tested. Every test we’ve had formally has not shown anything up at any dangerous level. So it’s a very important point to raise.”
Soon, the Dilworth fountains will close for the season, and the timing for those concerned about water safety in public places where children play could not be better. Next month, per the EPA state standards, the level of acceptable coliform bacteria can actually increase. “For the remainder of the year, the maximum fecal coliform level shall be a geometric mean of 2,000 per 100 milliliters (ml) based on a minimum of five consecutive samples collected on different days during a 30-day period.”
For non-fecal coliforms, “a maximum of 5,000/100 ml as a monthly average value, no more than this number in more than 20 of the samples collected during a month, nor more than 20,000/100 ml in more than 5% of the samples.”
So, yes, it was quite a shock when our clear water sample turned into that viscous yellow goop. But, no, it doesn’t mean our kids are necessarily splashing in crap-filled water.
“The most interesting thing about Dilworth,” Levy said, “is we opened it in the fall of ’14, it is an evolving place that we keep changing, that we keep adding things to and new people discover. So we are really committed to make sure that it’s managed in a first-class manner; it’s clean — we have a huge staff out there cleaning on a regular basis — we’re constantly testing for chlorine levels and just based on this summer, we’re probably going to increase for next summer both the frequency of the formal laboratory testing as well as some additional staffing there just to help educate kids and parents there in terms of appropriate behavior.”
As this season at Dilworth comes to a close, be mindful to remember the diapers and the dogs and debris on everyone’s shoes. Remember Levy’s advice, too. It may not be full of crap, but still, do not drink the water in Dilworth.