Students who’ve used the Berkeley High pool this year say they’ve experienced hair loss and eye irritation. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Students who’ve used the Berkeley High pool this year say they’ve experienced hair loss and eye irritation. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Out-of-whack chemical levels and temperatures in the Berkeley High School swimming pool caused hair loss and eye irritation over the past week, according to people connected to the pool.

The physical reactions prompted school staff to tell a water polo team to get out of the pool Tuesday. Practice resumed Wednesday when chemical levels returned to normal, according to the district.

“It’s been bad,” said water polo player Ryan, 15. Standing outside the pool Wednesday afternoon, the sophomore said the problems began the previous Friday.

“My leg hair got burned off and my arm hair too. We had to get milk and put it in our goggles because our eyes were burning,” he said.

Girls’ water polo captain Mihika, 17, said that team had a similar experience.

“The girls got into the pool last week on Friday and the chlorine was terrible,” said senior Mihika on Friday. “The pool was freezing cold. The girls came out of the pool and their eyes were completely red. We bought everyone milk.”

Mihika said she has not been in the pool this year because she’s currently on crutches, but she goes to practices and said the girls’ team was never told to leave the pool.

“One of the girls didn’t practice on Tuesday because her eyes were really dry and she couldn’t put in her contacts,” she said.

Berkeley Unified said the problems were caused by a “failed chemical feed controller,” connected to new equipment installed a week or two earlier.

“Because the controller was faulty, the unit fed too much chlorine into the pool,” said district staff in an emailed response to questions asked by Berkeleyside. The malfunctioning controller gave an inaccurate chlorine reading, making it seem like the levels were within the accepted limits, even though they weren’t, the district said. Staff did not state how high the actual levels turned out to be.

The controller was turned off, and “we have back-flushed the pool several times and added a chlorine neutralizer,” the email said.

The pool heater also failed over Labor Day weekend but was turned back on mid-day Tuesday, according to the district. The district said the water temperature fluctuated between 77 and 80 degrees, still within the standard range, and that pH levels have remained at the safe level of 7.4 the whole time. Too-cold temperatures can make breathing difficult.

“It’s been a little cooler than we’d like,” said Bill Gaebler, the longtime swimming and water polo coach, as students filed into practice Wednesday. He said his role is to simply report the temperature level and physical sensations the players are experiencing up to the athletic director.

Asked about the reports of hair loss, Gaebler said, “It’s something I’m aware of and I reported it forward.”

The boys’ water polo team plays in the Berkeley High pool several years ago. Photo: Mark Beyler
The boys’ water polo team plays in the Berkeley High pool several years ago. Photo: Mark Beyler

Athletic Director Britta Fjelstrom did not respond to a request for an interview Thursday. A few hours later, she sent an email, signed also by Vice Principal Tonia Coleman, Principal Erin Schweng and BUSD maintenance manager Steve Collins, to parents of water polo players.

The email said the water polo teams were able to practice “with no issues” Wednesday.

“The health of BHS athletes is of the utmost importance to all of us, and we are doing all that we can to improve the state of the pool,” the email to parents said. “Moving forward, we will continue to monitor the temperature and the chemicals daily to ensure that all are within acceptable levels.”

The Berkeley High swimming pool has a troubled history. In 2013, the city of Berkeley shut down the pool when students and parents complained of eye irritation, respiratory issues, and hair loss and discoloration. At the time, the pH, chlorine and chloramine levels were all found to be about 10 times higher than the accepted limits, due in part to a defective CO2 tank. The school district ended up taking over the daily monitoring of the pool from Berkeley High from then on. The issues drew national attention.

Records obtained by Berkeleyside at the time revealed that Gaebler, the coach, had pleaded for years with the school and district to address ongoing maintenance and safety issues at the pool, to little or no avail. In many cases, he advocated for a UV filter system to control chloramines, irritants that can build up when chlorine combines with organic waste products.

That equipment has since been installed, said Gaebler this week. “It’s been a big benefit,” he said.

Asked whether any similar issues occurred last year, district staff said they did not have any recollection of similar incidents, but said the on-site Berkeley High facilities manager is out of town.

Multiple students said the pool heater broke last year as well, however, and took several weeks to fix, delaying the start of the season.

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,...