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Guest Column - October 2011

Aquatics & Air Quality

The Canary in the Mine
Aquatics & Stainless Steel

By W.T. (Tom) Sinclair, P.E.


Last fall Sinclair & Associates Inc. was shortlisted and ultimately won a contract with the Greenville County (S.C.) Recreation District for the study and renovation of an aging aquatic facility. Each team interviewed was challenged by board member Randy Baxter, an ASCA Level II swim coach, as well as an aerospace design engineer, on how they would address the chloramines problem.

"Owners spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on dehumidification systems without solving the chloramines problem," Baxter said. "It just doesn't make sense. The best air in the building is the air at the top, the worst is just above the pool water. Why would you want to mix the two? It seems to me there ought to be a way to exhaust this heavily concentrated, chloramines-laden air through the gutter without contaminating the good air."

Not being one to shy away from a challenge, but at the same time realizing my lack of knowledge in this area, my response was, "I don't know, but if it can be solved, we'll figure out a way to do it."

Baxter had actually given the answer: remove the contaminated air before it pollutes the "good" air. Consultant Tom Lee of Paddock Pool Equipment Co. returned to his office, and put his team to work.

The evidence backing Baxter's charge is astounding. Chloramines are compounds formed by a chemical reaction between free chlorine and organic compounds (sweat, urine, body oils, etc.) in the water. The chloramines out-gas to produce an unpleasant, unhealthy, corrosive environment. Aquatics experts have warned of the corrosive effects of natatorium environments.

Is the entire aquatic industry missing the warnings the stainless steel is trying to give them? Stainless steel is designed to withstand chemicals, heat and water. Corrosion stains on the "stainless steel" in the aquatic facility are like the canaries in the mines of old. When the canary died suddenly, it warned the miners the air was bad and they needed to get out. Changing materials to hide the corrosion is like substituting a stuffed parrot for the live canary—no one benefits; it's just a cover-up.

Chloramines-laden air is bad for your health. The evidence is irrefutable. Respiratory problems such as "lifeguard lung" and asthma are common maladies for anyone in chloramines-laden environments for long periods:

  • Industry and health studies state that 25 percent or more Olympic swimmers have asthma or other respiratory distresses. Many swimmers on the U.S. team use inhalers daily.
  • On Dec. 26, 2006, a child in Nebraska was in intensive care for respiratory problems after swimming in a motel indoor pool. Some 254 persons became ill from that experience with the outbreak attributed to toxic levels of chloramines in the air.
  • Some swim meets are being suspended due to high levels of chloramines. Recently, an Atlanta swim center sent a girl to the hospital during a meet due to breathing difficulties. A team sent to the site to measure the chloramines level in the air found it to be 0.85 mg/m?. Currently, no exposure limits exist for airborne chloramines, however, World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a concentration of 0.5 mg/m? as a provisional value.

We spend millions on buildings for aesthetics, comfort and economy, but air quality has suffered. More air changes (high energy cost), "shocking the pool" (increases the problem) and ozone or UV disinfectant systems (addresses water, not air) are not the solution. Chloramines (specifically trichloramines) are heavier than air and tend to form a "bubble" in the meter or so above the water surface. Using the theory, "The solution to pollution is dilution," we stir the air. By ASHRAE standards, we exhaust 10 percent, usually high on the walls or in the ceiling, and the polluted air condenses on building surfaces, inside ductwork, inside HVAC equipment and inside lungs. Deterioration commences immediately. Our evaluation of the 17-year-old Greenville, S.C., facility revealed it had deteriorated to the stage it was structurally deficient and more costly to repair than to replace.