Berkeley High School. Photo: Lance Knobel
The indoor pool at Berkeley High School has been shut down more than once because of high pH levels in the water. Photo: Lance Knobel

By Eli Wolfe

The City of Berkeley shut down the swimming pool at Berkeley High School on Wednesday saying the level of chemicals in the water significantly exceeded normal operating conditions. The decision came on the heels of concerns expressed by parents that students on the water polo team were displaying alarming symptoms, including burning eyes, bleached hair, and, in some cases, the disappearance of body hair.

On Tuesday, several parents of water polo players delivered a letter to the principal describing the problems their children were experiencing and asking for something to be done. The city came in the next day to test the pool, according to Mark Coplan, public information officer for Berkeley Unified School District.

A meeting about the situation was held in the office of BHS Principal Pasquale Scuderi on Thursday, and the school’s water polo coach, Bill Gaebler, reported on its outcome to the water polo parents by email that evening. Gaebler revealed the results of the water testing which showed that an “exponentially high” pH level 0f 8.5 had been caused by a defective CO2 tank. He outlined the steps that the school would be taking to address the problem.

When Berkeleyside spoke with parents with children on Berkeley High’s water polo team before the meeting, several said they were upset both that the pool was closed and with the administration for what they said was continued negligence. Several of them said that they had not wanted to make the issue public because they hoped the administration would quickly resolve the problem. They also feared it would interfere with their students’ water polo season. No alternative practice and match pool has been suggested.

“We didn’t want the pool closed, we don’t want to make a political issue out of it. We want a safe and healthy environment for our children,” one parent, who asked not to be named, said. “We didn’t want the school administration to wait until there was a crisis to deal with this issue.”

The same parent said the hair on her son’s arms and legs was nonexistent, the hair on his head was turning white, and his eyes were irritated to the point of stinging and watering when he returned home after practice.

This is the second time in little more than a year that the Berkeley High pool has had to be closed. Last fall the city temporarily closed the pool after testing the water and discovering similar problems with a chemical imbalance.

In his email to the water polo community, Gaebler reported that the pool water showed a high pH reading of 8.5 (where 7.4 is mid-range and the total accepted range is 7.2-8.0),  and chlorine and chloramine readings (the eye and skin irritation factor) of 1.0 (10x), where below 0.1 is the accepted limit. “The pH scale is an exponential scale, so 8.5 is very high (10x) , and the level of rapid eye and skin irritation due to chloramines rises significantly at levels above 0.6.,” he wrote. “The high pH was caused by a defective CO2 tank, CO2 being the gas that buffers (lowers) the pH.”

He said a new CO2 tank had been ordered and should be delivered in seven days. “Meantime a liquid buffer has been added and will continue to be added daily, that has already lowered the pH into the healthy range (7.5),” he wrote. “The chloramine level is being lowered by burning off the excess ammonia compound. My hope is that this process will continue until the chloramine levels drop to below 0.1.”

Going forward, chemistry readings will be taken three times daily, he said and an independent pool operator company would be put on contract to assess the pool on a monthly basis.

The city’s health inspector will have to authorize the re-opening of the pool, but the hope, according to Gaebler, is that it could be as early as Monday, Sept. 30.

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