City closes school pool after kids show serious symptoms

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

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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  • guest

    Pool water chemistry should be checked every day before swimmers enter the pool. It only takes a couple of minutes to do the tests.

  • guest

    Sounds like there is a basic problem with pool monitoring. Should regular monitoring detect the out of whack chemistry before people show symptoms?

  • guest

    Isn’t it standard practice to test the water every day? How long has this condition existed?

  • Guest


    Though almost abnormally thick through his 50s, my father’s hair began to thin earlier this decade. It has reached a point where under some lighting conditions the scalp is partially visible on the crown.

    Any assistance KGO can offer on this issue of vital importance to our (micro) community would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you, and keep up the good work.

  • In case any of our readers are wondering about the provenance of the comment above, and in the interests of clarity, this was posted by someone from ABC!

  • Shell

    I find it very interesting that when chloramine causes symptoms in a pool, officials scramble to alleviate these students’ symptoms. When chloramine is used by cities to disinfect water in California, people complain of skin as well as respiratory symptoms. Some are even more “serious” and “alarming” than the symptoms mentioned in this article. Why doesn’t ABC news investigate this obvious fact? Here is a South Carolina tv news story about chloramine:

  • Elp

    The coach has been trying to solve this problem for 2 years. The high scool administration, and facilities department are the ones slow to react. The kids want to practice and play, they know the pool is funky, but would rather be the ” Berkeley Hairless” then not play. Let’s hope a plan can be put in place to deal with the pool chemistry and not do this again next fall.

  • Aba

    KGO 9pm news just reported a brief story about the pool and the effects on the students bodies.
    then MARC COPELAND was interviewed and said it was not true ” it was just
    the parents saying these effects were happening”!!!!!
    Mr.Copeland – we await your apology.

  • Doug F

    “…an independent pool operator company would be put on contract to assess the pool on a monthly basis.” I.e. the school doesn’t have anyone competent to do this.

  • Doug F

    Don’t hold your breath.

  • Concerned Mom

    My daughter swims on the Berkeley Barracuda swim team. About a month ago, after noticing an alarming thinning of her unusually thick head of hair, coupled with severe eye irritation (burning and tearing all night), and complete fade-outs of her brand new swim suits, I took her to the doctor for evaluation. My husband immediately contacted the City of Berkeley Recreation office, the city health department, and a supervisor of pools, telling them of her condition and asking if anybody else had complained. While he received quick phone calls back, expressing concern and offering reassurance that no other complaints had been lodged, we never heard any facts about the pool itself–the chemicals used, how often it was checked, etc. Seeing this article, I’m very concerned anew (and oddly reassured that my initial concern wasn’t “crazy”). I’m not sure if there is any connection between the Berkeley city pools and Berkeley High School in terms of maintenance and oversight. Has anyone else associated with the Barracuda swim team noticed similar symptomology?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    You might broaden the inquiry to include the adults who work out at King pool. That’s a group of pool users (as opposed to parents of pool users, who are once removed) with years of experience in what a properly maintained pool feels like.

    I’m sorry your daughter is having these symptoms. Swimming is such a great life sport — all of her associations with it should remain positive!

  • elp

    If Marc Copeland thinks there isn’t a problem, he needs to meet with the kids with the baby smooth arms and legs, look into their red eyes, and listen to asthmatic coughs that come with water polo in an unbalanced pool. This is not parents being overprotective, the pool has issues, is fussy and bureaucracy at the school and district level makes it slow and difficult to deal with, until it becomes a major deal. Coach Gaebler has been on the case… is just that any issue at the high school has to become a federal case with many parents fussing before any thing is done.

    By the way, the Water polo squad (boys v/JV) is 48 young men strong and I think the girls program is almost as robust.

  • Concerned Mom

    Yes, PragmaticProgressive, you’re absolutely right, that’s a wonderful suggestion. I must admit that my daughter often swam without a cap (we are much more disciplined about that now!) I’m sure adult swimmers are less likely to make that mistake. Still, if any adult swimmers who regularly use the Berkeley pools have noticed symptoms, please write in, your observations and comments would be greatly appreciated.

  • aba

    Yes, Elp you are absolutely correct. Thank you for further documenting the facts that Mr. Copeland says the parents have fabricated. The swimmers and players need respect at this point not invalidation. BHS finds a way of making an objective problem a subjective one. There are approx. 90 waterpolo players in total.

  • aba

    Oh, and to clarify who Mr. Copeland is – he is the BUSD spokesperson

  • berkeleyborn123

    They closed the pool for a long period between in the late 80’s-more due to uncleanliness. At that time, the showers and locker room were pretty disgusting, including being used as a restroom after hours by people (human feces on cement floors between lockers) so students wouldn’t use them before getting in the pool-I guess the filters couldn’t keep up with all the unshowered students, hair products, etc. For folks new to the BUSD, this whole incident is reflective of much of the “sausage making” that goes on regularly within the system…you probably wouldn’t want to see everything as you’d send you kids someplace else….

  • Momofh20polo

    Here in Atwater CA the pool at Buhach Colony had same issues for years and they do nothing about it… my son’s arm pit hair was completely white, while other kids had there eyebrows fall out and no arm hair, horrible skin dryness and rashes, still they say, ‘its in the normal range”. I say, “bull shit”

  • Charo

    Same thing happened to the Michigan State Swim Team and nothing ever was reported on it. The coach new something was wrong and forced the swimmers into the pool. The athletic director helped hush the issue.

  • Giovanni Bocalelli

    50 years ago I swam in that pool during my high school years at BHS. Walking into the pool room was similar to opening the lid of a washing machine doing whites with chlorine bleach. Very strong. One would never open your eyes because of the chlorine levels. And worst of all, the boys were made to swim naked. Back then, I don’t think they checked the chemicals at all. It sounds like things may have not changed that much. Well, until now.

  • Danielle

    I got sick from the same pool when I was in high school back in the 86 when I was on the swim team. I dropped off the team. A week or two later they closed the BHS pool and they moved the swim team and the water polo team to Willard Pool. I opened the article on aol because I was wondering if it was BHS again.

  • bob

    Are the pools outdoors? If so, you might want to consider the effects of chemtrails. Swimming in a pool of barium and aluminum nano particles might be the cause.

  • guest

    moderation needed.

  • Ema
    Check this out / Mark Copeland speaks again!
    Again, Mr. Copeland an apology is in order!!

  • dianarossi

    I just read the article and I wonder about Mr. Coplan’s comment :“I stuck my hand in there,” he told HuffPost, “and when I pulled it out, all five fingers were still attached.”
    This does not sound like what a public information officer for our school district should be doing — and certainly an inappropriate comment. This pool looks so beautiful.
    Why aren’t we taking proper care of it and the people who swim there by regularly testing the chemistry?