Swimming This Summer? Use Pool Chemicals with Care

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Pool water testSummer is here, and that means it’s time for fun outdoor activities like swimming in your backyard or neighborhood pool. Or you may have the chance to enjoy a big, luxurious pool or an exciting waterpark while on vacation.

If you own a pool, you know all too well how much work goes into keeping it clean and safe. If you don’t, you may not think much about that process; in fact, you may take it for granted. Pool upkeep requires chemicals to keep the water clean and protect against disease, including bromine- and chlorine-based disinfectants and chemicals that adjust pH. Not only pool owners and operators, but also many others are part of the process of manufacturing, transporting, storing, selling, using and disposing of these potentially hazardous chemicals.

But don’t worry: pool chemicals are safe when handled properly. However, they can cause injury when mishandled—nose, eye and throat irritation; skin irritation; abdominal pain; nausea; vomiting; headache and dizziness.

How often do pool chemicals cause injury? Are they really a serious safety hazard? Do people know how to handle them? Scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry are always working to protect U.S. citizens from hazardous substances, so they wanted to know the answers to these questions.

ATSDR scientists Ayana Anderson and Maureen Orr knew they had a good source for information about releases of hazardous substances like pool chemicals: the Hazardous Substance Emergency Event Surveillance program or HSEES. ATSDR funded HSEES in 17 states from 2001-2009. The surveillance system contains comprehensive data for chemical incidents with and without injuries during those years and from all sectors, including transportation.

chemical poolAnderson and Orr joined with Dr Wanda Welles from the New York State Department of Health and James Drew from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to analyze pool chemical release data from HSEES. Their goal was to describe where such events occurred and how the releases of pool chemicals affected public health.

They discovered that from 2001-2009, out of all 6,642 HSEES chemical incidents with injuries, only 400 involved pool chemicals. That doesn’t seem like many compared to the total. Does that mean that pool chemicals are not a serious problem?

Not exactly. While the total number of pool chemical incidents may be far fewer than other chemical events, they result in more than three times the number of evacuations for all HSEES incidents combined! And there’s more:

  • Of the 400 pool chemical incidents, six out of ten resulted in injuries.
  • Of the 732 injured persons, 2/3 were private citizens and half were under 18 years old.
  • Incidents occurred most frequently in private residences (39%), but incidents with the most injured persons (34%) occurred at recreational facilities.
  • Over 70% of pool chemical releases resulted from human error, while nearly 23% resulted from equipment failure.

To avoid pool chemical accidents and protect public health, pool owners and operators need to know the danger of mishandling pool chemicals. This study of pool chemical incidents reveals that these actions may have prevented injuries:

  • Reading and following product labels carefully and/or checking the company website
  • Storing chemicals properly
  • Improving design and engineering of equipment
  • Maintaining equipment regularly
  • Training not only pool operators, but also anyone involved in any phase of pool chemical handling.

If you own or operate a pool and regularly handle pool chemicals, you can find more information about safety practices at Recommendations for Preventing Pool Chemical-Associated Injuries.

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Page last reviewed: July 21, 2014
Page last updated: July 21, 2014