Live 5 Investigates: Pool chemical exposure

SUMMERVILLE, SC (WCSC) - A group of Summerville parents turned to Live 5 for help after their children were exposed to chemicals at a neighborhood pool.

The incident happened last August.

Now, as the weather warms up, they want to warn other parents about their scary experience.

"It was a hot day at the end of the summer vacation time for the kids," said Nicole Storozuk.

She and at least two other families were cooling off with their kids at the Ashborough neighborhood pool in Summerville.

"There was a cloud forming where the water comes out. So we knew there was something going on with the pool. Suddenly, the kids started coughing and saying they couldn't breathe. Their throats were hurting," said Nicole. "It was very scary because we didn't know what was happening. We did see that there was a pool maintenance guy there that day."

A Dorchester County Sheriff's Office investigative report says seven children were sick.

Five had to be transported to the hospital.

One of the sick children was Nicole's 11-year-old daughter, Kaelee.

"I started feeling a little bit nauseous and having a headache," Kaelee remembers. "I had no clue what was going on. I was just scared and hoped no one was going to die."

Dorchester Fire Rescue Lt. Anthony Simmons was one of the first responders to the scene that day.

"It hits close to home especially when kids is involved," said Lt. Simmons who says he immediately looked for what products might have been released into the pool.

"We were able to determine it was aquatic bleach and sulfuric acid rated at 40 percent. Under the right percentage, it's used to clean and disinfect the pool and whatever else," said Lt. Simmons.

In this case, something went wrong.

"This was a limited, contained event that very easily could have become much larger. If we'd had an airborne release of chlorine gas for instance, we would have been evacuating neighborhoods," said Dorchester EMS Director Doug Warren.

The company managing the pool was listed as US Aquatics.

Manager Jeremy Cawley told us to contact their Charlotte headquarters for a statement.

We are still waiting on a response.

We also contacted a Minnesota Company named USAquatics Inc. to see if it was related.

USAquatics Inc. President Tom Schaffer explained his company is an aquatic consulting, design and engineering firm.

He says it is not in any way related to the company in the Ashborough case.

"We hired an attorney to challenge the name and have spent several thousands of dollars to stop the use of our name. Late last summer, we were informed that that entity suddenly changed their name," said Schaffer in an email response.

He wished to "make it clear that our company was not, in any way, associated with this tragic incident."

U.S. Aquatics of Carolina, LLC is a registered business in South Carolina, according to Secretary of State business filings.

"Chemicals are used to balance pool chemicals and sanitize," said Kevin Smith, the service manager for Heritage Pools, a BBB-accredited and A+ rated pool company in North Charleston.

He says legally the water in a neighborhood pool must be tested at least three times a day.

Frequent testing is just as important in backyard pools.

"From my experience, we've never used sulfuric acid. Not many pool companies do because it's a cheaper alternative than muriatic acid," Smith said.

In general, he says acid in pools regulates PH and alkalinity and that mixing acid with chlorine creates chlorine gas.

"You certainly don't want it around a swimming pool."

After the Ashborough incident, some kids stayed overnight in the hospital.

Kaelee had headaches and a sore throat for weeks.

Nicole and the other parents filed claims for thousands of dollars in medical expenses with the pool's insurance company.

"We got a letter back saying they're denying the claim," she told us in early January.

In the denial letter, Maxum Insurance wrote, "It is our understanding there was no accidental discharge of chemicals in the pool."

While DHEC could not determine if the incident was a result of human error or mechanical error, we did find multiple reports that show the children were exposed to pool chemicals that day, including a report from US Aquatics to DHEC, a Sheriff's Office report, a Fire Department report, a county press release and hospital documentation.

Maxum contacted Nicole to investigate further after seeing these documents.

She says they've now agreed to settle the case.

"We take all claims seriously and are committed to honoring all policy terms. In keeping with our practices, we are actively communicating with the families involved," Maxum said.

DHEC spokesperson Tommy Crosby said there were no violations noted in the Ashborough case.

"During the swimming season, DHEC conducts at least two inspections of all public swimming pools that are open and in operation. These inspections involve checking chemical levels, numerous safety items, and other regulatory requirements," Crosby said."The department also conducts pool operator outreach meetings on pool safety and regulatory requirements are discussed. The department also maintains a record of incidents and conducts follow up inspections after an incident occurs."

He said there were 32 swimming pool related incidents that were reported to the department in 2017.

One of those incidents was a pool chemical-related incident.

"I hope that out of this at least there's more awareness for anybody even if you have just your own pool in the backyard make sure the chemicals are put in right and not when anybody's in the pool," Crosby said. 

"A crystal clear pool doesn't mean the water is in balance," Smith warned. "It doesn't mean sanitizer levels are perfect. Definitely reach out to the company taking care of the pool. I would even go so far as recommending get your own small test kit. Some of them are very inexpensive."

"Everybody working together, it was teamwork," Lt. Simmons said."It had a potential to have a lot of catastrophe that day. Fortunately we didn't."

Heritage Pools offers these pool rules for families:

  • Never add chemicals when people are in a pool
  • Never mix chemicals together. Always add chemicals to water, not water to chemicals.
  • Make sure chemicals are not expired and have tight caps on top.
  • Store chemicals upright in a cool, dark place like a shed.
  • And after adding chemicals, wait at least an hour for them to circulate in the water before hopping in.

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