Supplement Feature - February 2008
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A Perfect Storm

Are Water and Air Quality on Your Radar Screen Yet?

By Joseph Ryan


While crypto has been a known threat for years, air quality at indoor pools is a relative newcomer to the list of concerns for recreational swimmers. The public worry on this issue shows no sign of dissipating as reports of air quality problems at pools across the country continue to crop up in the media.

"Indoor air quality has always been a concern within the industry, but there has been more attention brought to it in the public lately," Piper said.

Most notably, nearly 200 complaints of respiratory problems and rashes were reported by more than 600 adults and children who attended a large water theme park in Mason, Ohio, during the first three months of 2007.

The reports likely scared off some customers and brought in both federal and local heath officials, who repeatedly tested the air and water. The problems were believed to be caused by chloramines—a natural byproduct from chlorine interacting with organic compounds like human sweat, urine and skin.

When inhaled at high levels, chloramines—which include various known carcinogens—are known to induce asthma attacks in asthma sufferers, cause breathing problems for those without asthma and cause red, itchy eyes.

Chloramines in the air give off that acidic, sweet smell that swimming pool patrons may come to associate with chlorine. But that smell actually means there is not enough chlorine in the pool because chloramines are given off into the air when chlorine can't handle the amount of organic material in the water.

Whether air quality is a widespread issue or not remains unclear. Proper and efficient reporting standards of such outbreaks have not been streamlined like with crypto. At the same time, reports of air quality complaints are easy to come by. The CDC put out a special report on two, unrelated 2004 outbreaks in rural Illinois that affected several dozen people. In Nebraska on Christmas Day in 2006, one 6-year-old child had to be hospitalized overnight with a swollen throat and about two dozen others experienced breathing problems from an indoor hotel pool. Several of those complaining of issues had not even set foot in the water.

"The measurements in the pool were way out of whack," said Bryan Buss, a lieutenant commander of the U.S. Public Health Service who studied the outbreak. "That really spurred our interest."

While minor initial contact irritations with airborne chloramines are relatively common—and often easily treated once removed from the environment—there is conflicting data on whether or not there can be more lasting problems. Some studies have suggested a link between airborne chloramines and other chlorination byproducts and bladder or intestinal cancer. A groundbreaking study released in Europe suggested there was a direct link to childhood asthma.

However, some experts strongly disagree that any long-term negative impacts have been proven.

"Some studies have raised suspicions, but generally when people have looked further they have found there is no real reason for health concerns in the United States," said Robert G. Tardiff, CEO of The Sapphire Group, a global health science risk management consultant group based in Maryland.

For now there are no pool-specific standards for air quality across the nation. Aside from traditional air quality building code standards, scientists are still working to find out what levels of specific chemicals make air dangerous for people and what levels are nothing to worry about. Experts, though, also believe that there will come a time, perhaps just five or 10 years down the road, when those standards will exist.

"It is not something that is going to happen tomorrow," Piper said. "But it is on the radar."

Meanwhile, an expert panel is set to release early this year the results of an industry-funded study on how much ventilation is necessary to keep an indoor pool facility safe for the swimming public. The project, now 18 months in the making, required the building of a model-size indoor pool for lab tests, and it is already gaining much attention across the industry.

"Everyone wants this information," said Coursin, who is heading the ASHRAE committee overseeing the project. "This research is garnering a lot of interest."

The study is expected to determine the amount of byproducts different pools spew into the air and the required ventilation frequency to remove them. The study material will be followed up with further research by other industry groups.

"This is an item that many segments of the industry should be concerned about," Coursin said.