Durham County

What caused YMCA poisoning? Chemicals mixed, creating dangerous gas.

The conditions of all six children taken to hospitals in “serious but non-life-threatening” condition after a chemical spill at the Downtown Durham YMCA had improved after emergency room examination, officials said Wednesday night.

A total of 43 people – 40 of them children between the ages of 6 and 12 – were taken to hospitals Wednesday afternoon after a lifeguard at the YMCA’s indoor pool smelled something strange.

“A lifeguard reported a strong chemical odor near the pool pump room,” said Forrest Perry, a regional vice president of YMCA of the Triangle.

A disinfecting chemical compound, sodium hypochlorite, had spilled at the indoor pool. The YMCA closed for business shortly after 3 p.m.

Sodium hypochlorite is a common disinfectant used in the Downtown Y’s indoor swimming pool.

Assistant Fire Chief Willie Hall explained that the sodium hypochlorite raises a pool’s pH level.

Whenever the Downtown Y’s pH level skewed to too high a pH, Hall said, sulfuric acid was used to lower the water’s pH. The chemicals leaked from the pipes that carried them, causing a problem.

“The chemicals mixed together on the floor,” Hall said, “and started mixing in a manner they’re not supposed to, so, it off-gassed and caused some noxious fumes.”

The problem appeared to be caused by a mechanical malfunction.

“Whether it’s a pinhole in the tubing, or the piping that goes to the chemicals – or maybe one of the seals on top of the vats wasn’t properly sealed – but it appears it leaked out and caused the issue,” Hall said.

Eleven Durham Fire Department units and about 25 firefighters ended up responding to the scene, including a Hazmat team, said Durham Fire Department Chief Daniel Curia.

The Fire Department’s Hazmat team had made three re-entries into the Downtown Y As of 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, attempting to identify and isolate the problem – for a future fix.

The Durham Fire Department received a call at 2:43 p.m. to provide assistance to an individual suffering from asthmatic symptoms, Curia said.

When firefighters arrived they realized that the situation was no longer a mere asthma call, Curia said, but a “hazardous materials call.”

Durham County EMS also responded to the report of an individual suffering from respiratory difficulty. EMS took that individual along with one YMCA staff member to the hospital.

Each day YMCA summer day campers are transported to the Downtown Y to go swimming, Perry said, and after their designated swim time they’re driven back to their camps across Durham.

Approximately 100 YMCA summer day campers swam at the Downtown Y Wednesday.

“As part of their routine they were taken back to their camp” at Club Boulevard Elementary School, Perry said.

“At around 3 p.m. some campers started complaining about nausea and breathing issues,” Perry added. “Camp staff contacted EMS and began notifying parents.”

The six children considered in serious condition were taken to emergency rooms.

“We transported 26 pediatrics (child patients) to Duke who were green tags (triage terminology for minor injuries) and then we transported an additional eight over to Duke Regional Hospital,” Emergency Medical Services Assistant Chief Brandon Mitchell said Wednesday.

Six Durham County EMS medic units with help from Orange County EMS units worked to transport the 40 kids to hospitals and two additional Durham County medic units were stationed at the Downtown Y as a precautionary measure.

Person County, Orange County and Wake County EMS assisted with regular emergency calls throughout Durham while Durham County’s emergency responders were preoccupied by the “crisis” at the Downtown Y, Mitchell said.

One more individual was transported to a local hospital several hours later after experiencing symptoms similar to those affecting the children, Mitchell said. The individual was near the Downtown Y around the time of the spill and is believed to have inhaled some of the gas.

“In regards to the facility and the pool,” Perry said, “we are working with local official to determine when it’s appropriate to reopen.”

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks