January 23, 2018
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Air, water quality concerns at UM, Bowdoin pools affect swim events

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

Citing safety concerns, the Maine Principals’ Association this week announced new guidelines to limit the number of fans and team members allowed at the high school state championship swim meets at the University of Maine and Bowdoin College.

But pool officials say their facilities are safe, and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention says the MPA may be taking an exaggerated view of the problem. Some swim coaches are up in arms over the changes, which will exclude nonqualifying team members from the swim decks and limit the number of spectators in the stands.

Class A championships will be held at Bowdoin College’s Leroy Greason Pool on Monday and Tuesday in Brunswick, while Class B championships will take place at UMaine’s Stanley Wallace Pool in Orono on Saturday and Monday.

“It bothers me because I want to bring everyone on the team to the meet,” said Bangor High School swim coach Phil Emery on Thursday. Instead, Emery said he will be limited to bringing only about 18 of the 37 boys on his team to Bowdoin. The Bangor girls team will be similarly affected, he said. Not having the full teams on hand will likely affect team spirit and enthusiasm, he said, as well as spectator excitement in the stands.

In an e-mail this week to school swim coaches and others across the state, MPA Assistant Executive Director Jeffrey Sturgis said problems with air and water quality in the UMaine and Bowdoin pool enclosures have resulted in the colleges adopting new policies governing public use of the facilities. Sturgis said the two institutions have been under “severe scrutiny” and have been cooperating with state and federal agencies to establish new policies in their pool facilities.

“We ask that you cooperate with these new policies so that our future use of these venues for our state championships not be jeopardized,” Sturgis wrote in his e-mail.

Bowdoin College representatives did not immediately return calls on Thursday. The college’s website states the Greason pool facility accommodates 1,000 fans. There was an air quality problem at the facility during the Bowdoin Open meet in December, according to an e-mail Emery sent to Bangor High swimmers.

UMaine officials said there have been no problems with air or water quality at the Wallace Pool complex since 2009, when a ventilation failure sickened dozens of swimmers, coaches and spectators at a major competition, prompting a Maine CDC investigation. That investigation found that the combination of packed bleachers, heavy pool use and a ventilation system that had inadvertently been shut off resulted in symptoms ranging from eye irritation and coughing to nausea and vomiting.

According to Wayne Maines, director of safety and environmental management at the University of Maine, the CDC recommendations all were adopted, including measures to ensure the correct functioning of exhaust fans and air intake vents as well as more frequent monitoring of air and water quality during major events.

While chlorine levels in the pool water are carefully maintained, Maines said, heavy use during a swim meet promotes the conversion of chlorine in the water to irritating chloramine gas in the air. That process can be ameliorated by steps such as requiring swimmers to shower each time they enter the pool, while preventing spectators from blocking intake vents with jackets, coolers and backpacks helps ensure the transfer of fresh air into the facility, he said.

Maines denied that there has been any significant downsizing of capacity in the Wallace Pool enclosure, which currently can accommodate 350 people on the pool deck and 400 or so in the stands.

Sturgis at the MPA said public health officials from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention might be attending the events, prepared to shut them down if safe air and water quality standards are not maintained or if attendance exceeds allowable capacity.

But Dr. Stephen Sears, acting director of the Maine CDC, said the agency has no plans to monitor the events. While CDC officials have been working with Bowdoin and UMaine to promote safe practices during the meets, there has been no crackdown on capacity or other regulations, he said. “I think our message may have gotten a little exaggerated,” he said.

Sears said swim meet officials should be on the lookout for problems, but that spectators and participants should also be vigilant. If they sense that ventilation is poor or experience problems with breathing or eye irritation, he said, they should notify officials and get outside into the fresh air.

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