TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Health department officials in a Lake Michigan county received about a dozen calls reporting illnesses consistent with exposure to raw sewage after children played in a public park’s contaminated splash pad.
Reports of gastrointestinal illnesses and one rash complaint came from people who played in the water at Clinch Park in Traverse City, Mich., on June 29 and June 30.
City workers discovered June 30 at mid-morning that sewage backed up when a pump station failed and pushed raw sewage into an underground reservoir that feeds sprinklers for the splash pad, rain arc, and mister.
"We can't absolutely positively say they were caused by the splash pad, but all had symptoms consistent with exposure to raw sewage," said Rose Ann Davis, spokeswoman for the Grand Traverse County’s health department.
Symptoms that could indicate exposure to raw sewage include rash, vomiting, fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, infections in open wounds, and jaundice, a yellowing of the eyes and skin which may indicated damage to the liver, health department officials said.
None of those who reported illness after using the splash pad required hospitalization, but the health department instructed people to keep a close eye on those who fell ill. Some of the illnesses that can develop from exposure to raw sewage may take up to two weeks to incubate.
"It's raw sewage, it ... can contain all sorts of things," Davis said.
Nicole Miller of Buckley said she believes splash pad contamination problems began before June 29. Her eight-year-old son began vomiting after he played in the splash pad for about three hours on June 27.
"I'm certain it was the splash pad," Miller said. "He was violently ill for six and a half hours, and we reported it to the health department the next day."
Miller said she went over other possible causes for her son's illness with health department officials and none of them fit.
But health department officials don't include Miller's son in their log of illnesses related to raw sewage contamination.
"We have no issues with the water on (June 27)," Davis said. "The water was tested (June 26) and (June 28) and there was no reason to believe it turned bad, then got good again."
City officials turned off the water feature after Clinch Park's grand reopening on June 25 because they'd obtained neither a construction permit nor a license to operate the splash pad. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality requires those approvals before such a facility may operate.
But DEQ officials informed city officials on June 27 they could reopen the water feature while they worked through the licensing and permit process. The DEQ's change of heart came after a telephone call from state Rep. Wayne Schmidt, a Traverse City Republican, a city official told the Traverse City Record-Eagle last week.
Lauren Vaughn, Traverse City's parks and recreation superintendent, said the splash pad's chlorine level tested a bit low when officials restarted the system on June 27, but proper chlorine levels quickly rebounded.
Vaughn said city officials test the chlorine level three times each day, and there was no indication of sewage contamination before the backup was discovered on June 30.
"There's just so many other possible avenues for these illnesses, it's hard to say what caused all of it," Vaughn said.
Miller contends city officials should have alerted the public to problems with permitting and when they realized contamination concerns had surfaced.
"Some kind of notice would have been nice to let the residents know there might be a problem with it," Miller said.