The boys water polo team playing in the BHS pool. Photo: Mark Beyler
The boys’ water polo team playing in the BHS pool. Photo: Mark Beyler
The boys’ water polo team playing in the BHS pool. Photo: Mark Beyler

After complaints about the swimming pool at Berkeley High went ignored for years – including reports of hair loss and eye irritation in swimmers – the Berkeley Unified School District last month decided to overhaul its system of monitoring the pool, shifting responsibility from the school administration to the district’s offices.

The change came after numerous parents expressed concern about the pH balance of the pool, the city of Berkeley closed it down twice, and the coach repeatedly pleaded with the school district over four years to fix numerous problems, including reports of unbalanced chemical levels, rust, and algae in the water. Many of the problems went unaddressed.

In November, Berkeleyside filed a public records request with the district. The documentation turned over by BUSD – dozens of emails and memos adding up to hundreds of pages – revealed an extensive history of unaddressed maintenance issues both big and small and lax oversight of the pool. 

For example, it took two years for some burned lights to be replaced and another three years before buzzing on light ballasts were addressed. A dehumidifier remained broken for a long time, meaning that chlorinated water condensed on surfaces surrounding the pool, causing rust and other problems. At one point, maintenance officials turned off the pool’s heating system because its fumes were bothersome, but that meant the pool temperature dropped well below recommended levels. Most significantly, the pool chemical levels occasionally got out of whack, causing problems for swimmers and water polo players.

“To date, when major requests have been submitted… regarding the pool, there has been no follow through from Central Maintenance and no response other than the automated ‘Thanks for your request,’” Bill Gaebler, Berkeley High School’s swimming and water polo coach, wrote in an January 2013 email to Berkeley High Operations Manager Al Wilright. In April, Gaebler reiterated his concern:  “The maintenance requests for pool projects that were submitted last spring went, by and large, unfulfilled,” wrote Gaebler in an email that went to Wilright, Principal Pasquale Scuderi, and other members of the administration. “Some of these requests are now in their third or fourth summer of abeyance.”

“It is frustrating and confusing that I cannot get clear and prompt communication back from my concerns regarding the swimming pool conditions,” Gaebler wrote in another email.

Gaebler did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Both Scuderi and Wilright were also contacted and did not reply. Wilright is away on medical leave.

Pool conditions draw national spotlight

The pool conditions drew national attention in September when the Berkeley Health Department shut it down due to pH, chlorine, and chloramine levels that were ten times higher than the accepted limits. The city also shut down the pool in the fall of 2012 after testing the water and discovering another chemical imbalance.

“It started to melt the hair off our bodies and make everyone cough a lot,” said Nate Pearson, a water polo player whose season was cut short when the pool was closed two years in a row.

Bill Gaebler, BHS swimming and water polo coach, stands next to the freshmen girl's water polo team at a meet. Photo: Marilee Enge
Bill Gaebler, BHS swimming and water polo coach, stands next to the freshmen girl’s water polo team at a meet. Photo: Marilee Enge
Bill Gaebler, BHS swimming and water polo coach, stands next to the freshmen girl’s water polo team at a meet. Photo: Marilee Enge

The City of Berkeley’s yearly inspection records reveal that the health department has warned Berkeley High about unsafe pool chemical levels six times since it opened ten years ago, although the imbalance was never nearly as severe as it was in 2013.

An inspection report from 2004 calls on the school to “Maintain pH levels between 7.2-8.0. Current level is 7.0. Correct immediately.” The 2006 and 2007 inspections indicated a 7.0 pH level as well, and the 2005 inspection found free chlorine at 0.5ppm, below the accepted lower limit of 1.0ppm.

In September, the pH level at the pool reached 8.5, significantly above the accepted upper limit of 7.8 on the exponential pH scale, according to an email Gaebler sent to the water polo community. The federal government’s Centers for Disease Control says on its website that swimmers will feel irritation to their eyes or skin if pool water isn’t kept as the same pH level of a body, which is between 7.2 and 7.8 on the pH scale.

The City of Berkeley recommends an upper limit of 7.6 if eye irritation has occurred – a more conservative stance than that of the CDC.

The CDC also warns about the effects – and possible long-term health concerns – of exposure to chloramines, or irritants, which can build up when chlorine combines with sweat, saliva or other body waste. “The symptoms of irritant exposure in the air can range from mild symptoms, such as coughing, to severe symptoms, such as wheezing,” the site says. “It is also known that routine breathing of irritants may increase sensitivity to other types of irritants such as fungi and bacteria.”

The chemical imbalance at Berkeley High this year was deemed a result of a malfunctioning CO2 tank, which was replaced in October, shortly after the cause was identified. In some of the previous cases, Wilright and Gaebler addressed the problems by manually feeding chemicals into the pool to alter the levels.

UV filtering system not installed

Gaebler has advocated for the installation of an ultraviolet filtering system, which can address recurring issues, including chloramine build-up, according to his emails. Experts told Gaebler that “the majority of all new pool construction” utilizes UV to control chloramines.  But the systems are expensive, costing as much as $63,000, and BUSD has not installed one.

“I believe the persistent problems are being caused by the CHLORAMINE level, a compound of chlorine plus organic waster products (ammonia, dirt), which, if not actively and specifically addressed, concentrate and accumulate in the pool water rather than being dissipated,” Gaebler wrote on Sept. 23. “There are treatments for this that we have not yet implemented, and in addition, I have advocated for the purchase and installation of a UV filter system that would permanently eliminate the chloramine situation, not to mention cut chlorine usage as much as 50%.”

A swimmer in the pool at Berkeley High. Photo: Susan Helmrich
A swimmer in the pool at Berkeley High. Photo: Susan Helmrich

After Berkeleyside first broke the story of the pool’s closure, it was picked up by the Huffington Post and other outlets in September. The issue was also mentioned on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! nationally syndicated radio show. And, after Berkeleyside and some parents of swimmers filed a Public Records Request, BUSD officials decided to centralize oversight of the pool. As of early December, the central district rather than Berkeley High will take care of maintenance and monitoring, said BUSD Facilities Director Lew Jones, who said the shift was inspired partially by this year’s chemical conditions.

“What happens at the high school is they have a lot of demands on them and they have limited resources,” Jones said. “We have more options now. I might have three people who are able to respond to the full issue as opposed to one person.”

Jones said he has taken measures to ensure that problems will now be identified and attended to immediately. An outside consultant now inspects the pool on a weekly – rather than the traditional yearly – basis.

“We made that decision because I just felt like there was enough public concern about what was going on and that it was worth having not just our own people, but people who are experts in that area to check the pool,” Jones said.

The district is also developing an internal procedure for shutting down the pool without the City requiring it.

“The oversight of our pools is by the City of Berkeley but there’s no reason why we can’t have lower limits than what is the absolute edge of where they’d shut it down – when we’d determine it was not safe to occupy,” Jones said.

Parent frustration over district handling

Berkeley High parents have repeatedly expressed frustration over the district’s handling of the pool, and got even more incensed in September when BUSD spokesman Mark Coplan seemed to belittle the problem in comments he made to the Huffington Post. Coplan said that the pool shutdown was merely a cautious response to “routine chemical imbalance.”

“I stuck my hand in there and when I pulled it out, all five fingers were still attached,” Coplan said to the Huffington Post.

“The short-term effects we can visibly see, and they discount those,” said Marc Beyeler, father to a water polo player who experienced hair loss. “The long term? Those we have no idea about,” he said, referencing the CDC’s warnings about chloramines.

Coplan said he never meant to discredit the swimmers’ complaints. “There’s no question about what the kids dealt with and what they experienced,” he said. “The only question that I thought about was what level of contamination the pool was in.”

Knorr Systems, the outside consultant that inspects the pool, assured Coplan that the chemical situation was not dangerous and that accepted levels in the United States are much lower than in Europe and elsewhere — but the new internal procedure will likely allow for a district-initiated preemptive shutdown even before the chemicals reach the accepted limits.

Recent inspections have found chemical levels to be within the accepted range, Jones said.

The Berkeley High competition pool was constructed in 2004 as part of a $37 million expansion project financed by bond measure AA that added a library, dance studios, cafeteria, college center and administrative offices to the campus.

City closes school pool after kids show serious symptoms (09.27.13)

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...