Take it from Your Friendly Neighborhood Chemical Officer
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 CAROLYNE LESSARD-NERON
12th Aviation Battalion
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
After returning home from a 13-month deployment in Iraq as a chemical officer, I decided it was time to leave the military to pursue my dream of becoming a pilot. I was proud of what I’d accomplished in the Army but was ready for a new challenge. Stationed in Germany, I was given 10 days of permissive temporary duty authorization to travel back to the U.S. to look for a house. When I saw a beautiful four-bedroom home with an in-ground pool, I knew I had to buy it. Since this was central Florida, a pool was a must-have.
Being a first-time homeowner, I didn’t know much about pool care. I researched the neighborhood and found a local pool and spa store less than 2 miles away. There, an employee tested my pool water and let me know the exact chemicals I needed to balance the pH level. If the water is too acidic, it will corrode metal equipment, cause etching on surface materials and irritate a swimmer’s skin. If the alkalinity level is too high, it can cause scaling on the pool surface and plumbing equipment and cloud the water. Additionally, both high acidity and high alkalinity alters the effectiveness of the chlorine, which kills pathogens in the water. After a five-minute breakdown of pool care from the employee, I was sure I was up for the task. After all, I just returned from war, so how hard could pool care be?
Armed with my new knowledge, I donned the basic Florida personal protective equipment — flip flops and shorts — and went to work on the pool. Every Sunday for the next several weeks I would scrub and vacuum the bottom of the pool and pour in the required chemicals, including liquid chlorine, chlorine tabs, bromine and algaecides. My pool system used an automatic chlorinator instead of the floating one. That way it distributed chlorine in the jet system to help keep the water balanced.
On this particular day, I was checking if the chlorinator tube had chlorine tablets. I had my cellphone pinned between my left ear and shoulder so I could use both hands to open the chlorinator top. I didn’t have much leverage, so I crouched down and held the bottom of the tube with my right knee. I was chatting away on my phone rather than paying attention to what I was doing when I finally got the top open, releasing a high concentration of chlorine vapor. I dropped the chlorinator and immediately started gasping for air.
My chest tightened as I fought to breathe. I was panicking. On the other end of the phone line, my mom had no clue what was happening. I heard her ask if I was OK, but I couldn’t respond. After what seemed like an eternity, I started coughing and was able to take a few short, shallow breaths. My lungs felt like they were full of mucus. For the next two weeks, I had a very bad cough and phlegm in my lungs. Fortunately, I eventually recovered.
The worst part of this ordeal, other than almost killing myself with toxic fumes, was the fact that my own mother asked me, “Weren’t you a chemical officer?” The irony hit me. Yes, I was a chemical officer and I had the training to know better. Not wearing the proper PPE, such as safety glasses, gloves and a facemask, while handling hazardous chemicals and being complacent almost killed me. Pool care might seem simple, but it can turn deadly if not done properly. I recommend you leave it to the experts. Take it from your friendly neighborhood chemical officer. FYI
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, in 2012, an estimated 4,876 people visited an emergency department for injuries associated with pool chemicals. Nearly half of these were younger than 18 years old, and the most common diagnosis was poisoning by inhalation of vapors, fumes or gases. Pool chemical handlers and others can be injured when critical safety rules for storing and using pool chemicals are ignored. Inhaling fumes when opening pool chemical containers, mixing pool chemicals, attempting to pre-dissolve pool chemicals, and accidentally splashing chemicals in the eyes are some common mistakes.
Other mistakes may not be immediately obvious. For example, inadvertently spilling a cola-type soft drink near chemicals in the storage area could set off a dangerous reaction that puts people at risk. That is why one of the rules of safe pool chemical storage is to refrain from bringing food or drink into the storage area. Another “recipe for disaster” is storing liquid chemicals above bags of solid chemicals. An unwanted reaction could occur if the liquid chemicals leaked onto the bags. That is why it is important to store liquid chemicals securely in the lowest location.
For more information on pool maintenance safety, including chemical handling and storage, visit the CDC website at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/aquatics-professionals/pool-chemical-safety.html.
Source: Water Quality and Health Council