ORONO, Maine — Inadequate ventilation is being blamed for sickening many of Maine’s best young swimmers last weekend along with spectators and coaches at the 2009 Winter Combined Championship meet at the University of Maine. The university is investigating the situation, and the state’s chief public health officer said Friday that someone at the four-day event should have notified emergency responders.
The statewide swim meet, organized by Maine Swimming Inc., brought together about 600 serious team swimmers from elementary school through high school age. The meet, which began on Thursday, March 5, and concluded on Sunday, March 8, was held at the Wallace Pool inside the University of Maine Field House.
According to Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a lack of ventilation apparently caused unsafe levels of chlorine to build up in the warm, heavy air of the pool enclosure. Primary complaints among competitors, spectators, coaches and others in attendance included intense eye irritation, respiratory congestion and coughing, she said.
With hundreds of swimmers churning through the chlorinated water, Mills said, conditions would have worsened quickly.
“There were hundreds of people there, and most stayed for the whole meet. Yet it appears no one thought to call either facilities management [at the university] or the fire department,” she said.
University of Maine spokesman Joe Carr said Friday that two large exhaust fans that typically run constantly in the pool facility had been shut off at some point. University staff entering the facility Monday morning found the door to a utility room unlocked and the switches to both fans in the “off” position, he said.
“They were both on the week before,” Carr said. The fans started up immediately and appeared to be in good working order when they were turned on, he added. There was no sign of vandalism or malicious intent, Carr said, although the university is still trying to get to the bottom of the matter.
The chlorine level and acidity of the water in the pool were checked twice a day throughout the weekend, Carr said, and stayed within targeted measurements. On Sunday morning, municipal water was added to the pool to raise the pH slightly, resulting in a temporary greenish color, he said.
As anecdotal accounts of illness trickled into the Maine CDC this week, staff became concerned, Mills said. A state health inspector was assigned to the university on Wednesday. A survey e-mailed to team coaches and forwarded to team members’ families Thursday night resulted in 115 responses by early Friday morning, Mills said, with 76 of the respondents confirming symptoms in their swimmers.
“None of them indicated they had to seek medical care,” Mills said.
According to Leanne Gravel, head coach of Coastal Maine Aquatics in southern Maine, coaches were among the hardest hit. While swimmers came and went from the facility between events, she said, most coaches stayed on the pool deck for long hours every day. By Sunday, she said, she and many other coaches were experiencing respiratory difficulties. Gravel said she saw a doctor earlier this week and has been out of work all week.
Gravel said many of her team members complained of symptoms as well, and that some have sought medical treatment over the course of the week.
“It all culminated on the last day,” she said. “You could hear all these people coughing, not being able to breathe well. It is unfortunate that such a big, important meet that the kids had trained for all year ended up with these problems.”
Jim Willis, a swim coach at the Bar Harbor YMCA and chairman of Maine Swimming Inc., the organization that sponsors the annual statewide meet, said he started feeling sick Saturday night. Several youngsters on his team had complained of difficulty breathing earlier that day, he said.
“I just didn’t put two and two together,” he said. “No one really understood what was happening until Sunday.” Even then, he said, it was unclear whether there was a real problem or if participants were simply fatigued.
Now, Willis said, Maine Swimming Inc. is cooperating with the Maine CDC and “trying to be sure we have an answer from the university.” Willis said it did not appear that conditions at the pool had any significant impact on swimmers’ performance.
At UMaine, Carr said there have been no other reports of illness related to the use of the Wallace Pool, including from another large competition the weekend prior to last. The pool is used regularly by university students, local swim teams and the general public, he said.
“We are certainly sorry this happened, and we feel badly about the discomfort suffered by those who became ill,” he said. “The university hosts a large number of spectator events, and we strive to provide a good experience for our guests. We are taking immediate steps to try to ensure that something like this will not happen again.”
The Wallace Pool will be in use this weekend — not by swimmers, but by dogs, canoeists, kayakers and fishermen in demonstrations at the 71st annual Eastern Maine Sportsmen’s Show.