May Fail

Over the holiday weekend a group of Phoenix children and swim school employees received a harsh lesson in chemistry that ended up in a trip to the hospital for some after inhaling toxic fumes. The children and employees were exposed to a non-life-threatening plume caused by a mixture of muriatic acid and chlorine at the Hubbard Family Swim School, near Thunderbird Road and 32nd Street in Phoenix, according to the Arizona Republic

An employee at the school accidentally mixed the substances during a routine maintenance procedure, said Bob Hubbard, owner of the swim school.

Muriatic acid also known as hydrochloric acid and chlorine are both commonly used in swimming pools. The muriatic acid is used to balance the acidity of the pool and the chlorine is used to keep the pool’s bacterial levels low. But when the two are mixed together they create a low concentrated form of chlorine gas.

Chlorine gas is a powerful irritant that can inflict damage to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. At high concentrations and prolonged exposure it can cause death by asphyxiation. In fact it was used as a weapon during World War I.

Fortunately in the swim school the concentrations were two low to cause life threatening damage. Phoenix Fire Department officials treated eight people for exposure, and sent five people to the hospital as a precautionary measure.

Symptoms of exposure to the plume included irritated eyes, respiratory irritation and vomiting.

The school was temporarily evacuated and Phoenix fire officials ventilated the building and were monitoring the air before allowing people back into the pool.

Hubbard said the school plans to review its maintenance procedures with the fire department to ensure safe practices. He added that the substances are stored separately in the building.

It’s amazing how many household chemicals can be toxic in the right dosage or concentrations. Chemistry when used properly can be a wonderful thing but mishandled it can be very dangerous.  This point was driven home this month by the PASS’s own Skeptic Book Club selection for May called The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum.  The book details the beginnings of forensic toxicology in New York during the Prohibition Era. According to the description Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.

These days we know far more about chemicals, how to detect them and what to do in cases of accidental exposure.  In the event of chlorine exposure the Center for Disease Control recommends the following:

  • Leave the area where the chlorine was released and get to fresh air. Quickly moving to an area where fresh air is available is highly effective in reducing exposure to chlorine.
    • If the chlorine release was outdoors, move away from the area where the chlorine was released. Go to the highest ground possible, because chlorine is heavier than air and will sink to low-lying areas.
    • If the chlorine release was indoors, get out of the building.
  • If you think you may have been exposed, remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.
  • Removing and disposing of clothing:
    • Quickly take off clothing that has liquid chlorine on it. Any clothing that has to be pulled over the head should be cut off the body instead of pulled over the head. If possible, seal the clothing in a plastic bag. Then seal the first plastic bag in a second plastic bag. Removing and sealing the clothing in this way will help protect you and other people from any chemicals that might be on your clothes.
    • If you placed your clothes in plastic bags, inform either the local or state health department or emergency personnel upon their arrival. Do not handle the plastic bags.
    • If you are helping other people remove their clothing, try to avoid touching any contaminated areas, and remove the clothing as quickly as possible.
  • Washing the body:
    • As quickly as possible, wash your entire body with large amounts of soap and water. Washing with soap and water will help protect people from any chemicals on their bodies.
    • If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse your eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contacts, remove them before rinsing your eyes, and place them in the bags with the contaminated clothing. Do not put the contacts back in your eyes. You should dispose of them even if you do not wear disposable contacts. If you wear eyeglasses, wash them with soap and water. You can put the eyeglasses back on after you wash them.
  • If you have ingested (swallowed) chlorine, do not induce vomiting or drink fluids.
  • Seek medical attention right away. Dial 911 and explain what has happened.
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