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Vanderbilt toxicologists warn of dangers of pool chemical misuse

Jul. 31, 2013, 11:25 AM

Photo courtesy of John Pope, M.D./Vanderbilt

Chemicals are added to swimming pool water to enhance and protect the water quality and minimize disease-causing germs, but these same chemicals can cause irritation, injury and even death when not handled appropriately, doctors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center warn.

While pool chemicals are vital for the reduction of recreational water illnesses such as gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections, pool chemical-related injuries send more than 5,000 people to the emergency room each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Like any chemical, pool chemicals all have their health hazards and need to be handled with care,” said John Benitez, M.D., MPH, associate professor of Clinical Medicine, Toxicology Attending Physician and managing director of the Tennessee Poison Center at Vanderbilt. “It all has to do with their concentration, the amount you are exposed to and over what period of time.”

Benitez says pool chemicals can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and eventually skin if the pH of your pool is not properly balanced. Knowing your chemicals, reading and following the instructions and testing the pH level of the water is imperative to ensure safe chemical exposure, he stressed.

Also of grave concern is the mishandling and mixing of chemicals, which can cause pulmonary edema or even burns due to explosions. Inhaling chemicals, inappropriately mixing chemicals or adding water onto concentrated chemicals can also lead to serious injury.

Ingesting undiluted chemicals can cause local injury and could possibly be fatal due to the caustic nature of these chemicals. Proper care and caution with keeping children and pets away from storage containers is imperative, Benitez said.

Injuries can occur at home swimming pools but also at public pools if the maintenance staff is not well trained in pool safety and chemical safety.

“Remember, injuries can occur anywhere; be prepared and know the dangers,” Benitez said. “These chemicals keep swimmers safe from bacteria and other germs, but injuries from chemicals can be serious when safety is disregarded.”

The Tennessee Poison Center at Vanderbilt offers these tips for safe pool chemical use:

  • Familiarize yourself with your pool chemicals by reading all directions and following them.
  • Always store chemicals away from children and animals.
  • Prevent chemicals from coming in contact with water and never mix chlorine products.
  • Wear protective gear such as glasses and gloves when handling chemicals.
  • Frequently check the pH level of your chemicals, adjusting accordingly to offer a safe swimming environment.
  • Call your local poison center (800-222-1222) or go to your nearest emergency room if concerned about chemical exposure or ingestion.

Certified by the American Association of Poison Control CentersTennessee Poison Center is a comprehensive poison resource center located at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and is certified as the statewide poison control center by the Tennessee Department of Health.

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