The safety and cleanliness of public swimming pools regularly are taken for granted by members of the swimming public, and rightly so. Sterilizing pools with calibrated chemical doses is a well-regulated and safe practice repeated countless thousands of times a day across the country.
Standard operating procedure requires that two specific liquid chemicals be piped separately into the water: sodium hypochlorite for residual disinfecting and hydrochloric acid to achieve the proper pH balance. The system works fine as long as these two chemical agents don't directly come in contact with each other. But what happens when these chemicals mix?
A DANGEROUS MISHAP
“Here at the Laramie (Wyoming) Community Recreation Center we have two indoor pools — a leisure pool and a lap pool,” says Paul Harrison, department head of the Laramie Parks and Recreation Department. “Our liquid sodium hypochlorite and hydrochloric acid are stored in two large, separate tanks. Each week, the maintenance staff has to transfer barrels that we receive from shipment to storage tanks housed in an adjacent, sealed room. These chemicals are then automatically fed into the pools.
“This past winter, two employees involved in the chemical transfer inadvertently put a small amount of sodium hypochlorite solution in the hydrochloric acid tank,” continues Harrison. “They immediately discovered this was wrong, vacated the area, called for assistance and eventually were transported to the hospital for observation and treatment.”
Since a strong vapor was rapidly filling the small storage area, burning their eyes and lungs, they were wise to flee the scene. Understandably, given the circumstance, the employees left the hydrochloric acid tank unsealed and closed the door to the storage area on their way out.
The unlucky duo accidently had accidentally stumbled into the role of junior chemist and created chlorine gas, a dangerous, deadly, caustic substance. The world's first chemical weapon — used in World War I — chlorine gas is, in fact, still being deployed by insurgents against U.S. and Iraqi troops in that nation's conflict.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chlorine gas exposure can lead to “nausea and vomiting, burning pain, redness and blisters on the skin … difficulty breathing or shortness of breath may appear immediately if high concentrations of chlorine gas are inhaled, or may be delayed if low concentrations of chlorine gas are inhaled in the lungs (pulmonary edema) within 2 to 4 hours.”
PREPARED FOR ANYTHING
“We got the call that two people had been exposed to chlorine gas at the Rec Center,” recalls Jim Hoflund, a Laramie Fire Department company officer. “When we arrived on scene, we had personnel who were checking on the victims in the ambulance, so that was under control. Since the immediate life/safety issues were okay, we had to figure out how to mitigate the incident.”
While the Laramie Fire Department serves a relatively small community (population 31,000), it particularly is well prepared for the unique challenges of a major hazmat operation. The surrounding public is in very good hands.
The State of Wyoming Department of Homeland Security divides Wyoming into seven different regions. Laramie is in Region 3, which includes Albany and Carbon counties, and the Laramie Fire Department provides hazmat response in this region.
The Laramie Fire Department also features 20 firefighters (out of 43 total) who have achieved the highest National Fire Protection Association Hazmat Certification — the Technical Level — requiring a minimum of 80 hours of specialized training. Many have received additional advanced training at the American Railroad Institute School in Pueblo, Colo.
“Once we found out that these two chemicals were involved, we knew exactly what we were going to do,” continues Hoflund. “One: Put on our ONESuit hazmat protective gear. Two: Mitigate and ventilate the incident site.”
SUITING UP, GOING IN
Prior to entering the incident site, Hoflund and a colleague put on their new single-skin, flame-resistant chemical protective suits that are certified to vigilant NFPA 1991 standards. The suits protect them against the most dangerous chemical and biological agents in both liquid and vapor form, as well as the dangers of flash fire from a chemical fire.
Hoflund and his partner encountered their first problem when the door to the storage facility was locked, forcing them to cut out the door with a reciprocating saw.
“That was first thing that I noticed about the [suit], it had very good maneuverability and it was easy to hold tools in my hand,” says Hoflund. “We hadn't trained cutting doors off in a hazmat suit, but we quickly found that it was easy to move around.”
“Once we gained entry, we discovered that certain areas of the room were difficult to move around in. With our old hazmat suits, we were always worried about tearing. But the [new suits] are really flexible. In fact, I ran into a couple of things in the room but the suits were very durable,” Hoflund adds.
This was the first time that the Laramie Fire Department deployed the suits, which were purchased to replace protective gear reaching the end of its shelf life.
Hoflund and his partner sealed up the exposed hydrochloric acid tank and proceeded to ventilate the small space with positive pressure fans. Using a chlorine monitor and pH paper they were able to determine when it was safe for civilians to reenter the room.
The citizens of Laramie were free to swim again. (The pool reopened the next day.) The two employees were released from a local hospital later that afternoon.
OUT WITH THE OLD
“Our old hazmat suits were approaching the end of their shelf life and our distributor recommended we try a new suit [ONESuit Flash from Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics] on the market,” says John Poulos, a company officer and hazardous materials coordinator for the Laramie Fire Department.
“He brought them for the team to try on and the main reason we liked them so much was because of the flexibility and softness of fabric. They were also extremely lightweight. While our old suits were also Level A and single-skin, they didn't meet the flash fire requirement. They were also much heavier, not nearly as flexible, and nowhere near as soft,” says Poulos, a 25-year department veteran.
Poulos notes that with the new suits, there is no current shelf life. He says they have to conduct an annual recertification test, which requires pressurizing the suits to 4 inches of water pressure and examining the exhaust valves. “As long as they're intact and serviceable, you can keep using it,” Poulos says.
“We receive funding every year from the state Homeland Security Grant Program (federal funding) and we like to be good stewards with that money,” adds Poulos. “We do a lot of comparisons and the safety issue is of course paramount.”
Tim Colbert is a director at ABI Marketing Public Relations, a leading business-to-business communication firm. He can be reached at [email protected].