(WMC-TV) - In the wake of a bacterial outbreak at a Mid-South fitness center, The Action News 5 Investigators discovered Tennessee health officials do not inspect every health club.
They also do not test the clubs they do inspect for infectious organisms.
"That is not part of our inspection protocol with the state," said Yolanda Woods, lead environmentalist for the Shelby County Health Department's Bureau of Environmental Sanitation.
Tennessee's health codes do not authorize county health departments to test health clubs for microbial pathogens. County health officials can only take action, including shutting down a facility, after an independent laboratory -- typically hired by the fitness center itself -- confirms a bacterial or viral contamination.
That's what happened in July, when health officials worked cooperatively with 24 Hour Fitness, 1285 Ridgeway Rd., to shut it down after it confirmed several members were sickened by Legionella bacteria from its hot tub. The illness, Legionnaires' Disease, is a type of pneumonia caused by the airborne bacteria.
A visit to 24 Hour Fitness this week revealed the center has shut down a second time for "flood damage" due to a "broken fire sprinkler."
"The club remains closed as 24 Hour Fitness evaluates the best use of the club space following flood damage," read an e-mail from 24 Hour Fitness' corporate office in California. "The remediation work for Legionella in our club has been completed, and the Shelby County Health Department has given all requisite approvals and sign-offs to re-open."
County health officials are only mandated to inspect health clubs with "wet areas" -- pools, spas, saunas -- and even so, they neither have the means, the manpower, nor the mandate to test for infectious organisms.
A records search under Tennessee's open records law revealed not one health club has officially failed its Shelby County health inspection since 2008. During that period, only two Shelby County fitness centers with pools, spas or saunas scored below a 90 more than once. The violations for those two centers included things such as bathroom hygiene, structures in need of repair and pool algae/unsatisfactory pool chemical levels.
"We look at the chemical level. We check the pH, alkalinity, then we look for structural damage to the pool or the spa," said Woods. "But we do not do any testing for microbial contaminants."
With that in mind, The Action News 5 Investigators -- under the supervision of the University of Memphis School of Public Health -- took swab samples of skin-contact surfaces at area fitness centers. Testers took nearly three dozen samples from surfaces on toilet handles, dumbbells, exercise equipment and handrails at centers in Downtown Memphis, near the Mid-South Fairgrounds, in East Memphis and in Collierville, TN.
The school's lab technicians tested the samples for four bacterial pathogens: E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus Aureus and Listeria.
Lab results revealed only the presence of Staphylococcus Epidermis, a common bacteria found in our noses and on our hands.
"It's being transferred through hands, so somebody's carrying that in their body or on their skin," said Dr. Pratik Banerjee, assistant professor of environmental health for the U of M's School of Public Health. "It's more of a reflection of the people using the facility than the hygiene of the facility itself."
Banerjee said health clubs and their members are more conscientious about sanitizing their hands and facility surfaces before and after they use them.
He supports Tennessee's current health codes as they pertain to health clubs. He said it would be too tedious and cost-prohibitive to require health departments to inspect every health club for microbial pathogens.
"I don't see any reason at this point to go and check for microbes," he said.