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Ex-employee says chlorine levels at Cary swim school caused respiratory issue

A former employee of a children’s swimming school in Cary said she was diagnosed with chlorine inhalation on her first day of work.

Sam Matthews, 20, was hired as a swim coach at Aqua-Tots Swim School on N.C. 55. An hour and a half into her first training shift, she began to feel her eyes burning.

Soon she began coughing and gasping for air, taking frequent breaks to catch her breath, she said. The silver rings she was wearing began to corrode.

An experienced swimmer of 15 years, Matthews said she knew something was wrong.

“I know what chlorine does to your skin, your hair and your eyes, but this did not feel like chlorine,” she said. “I’ve lost my goggles for two weeks straight at one point (in the past) and had to continuously open my eyes underwater. My eyes have never burned the way they burned within four hours.”

Aqua-Tots Swim Schools were started 29 years ago in Arizona and have six locations in North Carolina, including in Charlotte, Raleigh and Holly Springs.

Matthews arrived at the swim school around 1:30 p.m. Monday and got into the water at 4 p.m. to train and assist with lessons. Each class had four children, and she taught about six classes, pushing through the painful symptoms.

After four hours, Matthews decided her first day would be her last.

Corroding rings, broken HVAC filter

The management team at Aqua-Tots learned about the incident on Tuesday, according to a statement sent to The News & Observer by April Cauiola, a spokesperson. Immediate action was taken, including “checks of pool chemical levels and daily reading logs in adherence to health and safety guidelines,” the statement said.

“It was identified that a component in the air circulation unit required repair. The facility was temporarily closed until necessary repairs could be completed, and the pool water was evaluated by a third party to verify that all levels (were) within safe parameters,” the statement said.

Cauiola said management has remained in “constant communication” with all employees about their health and safety needs. They confirmed that two team members, including Matthews, got immediate medical care.

“We are implementing additional measures to prevent a recurrence of such incidents in the future,” the statement said.

The Wake County Environmental Health and Safety Department is required to inspect and permit all public swimming pools. Private home pools are exempt from the inspections.

“Any complaints received are investigated by our department,” a county spokesperson said. “However, we are not aware of this particular incident. No complaints have been received.”

Matthews said she didn’t know if any children in the water were affected on Monday. Aqua-Tots management did not say if families of children were contacted after the incident.

“The water was disgustingly murky,” Matthews said. “(Management) just blamed it all on humidity. But it’s a 90-degree heated pool in the middle of February.”

Employees who were affected were told to contact human resources, Matthews said. She went to urgent care the following day and was diagnosed with chlorine inhalation. She was given a breathing treatment and told to come back for a check-up in a few days.

Chlorine, at room temperature, is a yellow-green gas with a strong odor. The chemical cleans swimming pools and drinking water and sanitizes sewer or industrial waste.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most exposures to chlorine occur by inhalation and can cause asphyxiation in poorly ventilated, enclosed, or low-lying areas. Long-term effects can include chronic lung problems like asthma and bronchitis. Exposure to high concentrations of chlorine can cause immediate lung damage. People at risk are cleaning staff in hospitals, schools, or public buildings, lifeguards, health club staff, professional swimmers and coaches.

Children swimming in pools with high chlorine levels can experience nasal irritation, coughing, wheezing, skin irritation or diarrhea if too much is ingested.

Chlorine gas is highly corrosive when it comes into contact with the eyes, skin and the upper respiratory tract. The amount of chlorine in swimming pools is typically minimal.

Swallowing too much pool water can lead to poisoning. Exposure to low concentrations of chlorine can cause eye and nasal irritation, sore throat, and coughing. Inhalation of higher concentrations of chlorine gas can rapidly lead to respiratory distress with airway constriction and fluid in the lungs.