News outlets are reporting that a man in Orange County, California died earlier this week while using pool cleaning chemicals at a local apartment complex. There was no indication that he was using the chemicals in exceptionally large quantities. However, early evidence showed that he may have improperly mixed chlorine with other cleaners, which can produce dangerous reactions.
The man was found semi-conscious, surrounded by spilled chemicals which emitted a yellow gas. He had suffered severe chemical burns to his back, face, and lungs. Emergency responders were called, and the man was taken to a hospital where he later passed away from his injuries. Fire department members donned Hazmat gear and cleaned the site of the accident. A nearby garage was found to contain chlorine and other pool cleaning products that had been knocked over.
According to the CDC, chlorine emits a “greenish-yellow gas” at room temperature, and “inhalation is the main route of chlorine gas exposure.”
This accident drives home the fact that hazardous chemicals can pose dangers even in small, infrequently-used quantities. Further, any employee exposed to hazardous chemicals is always vulnerable and at risk to some degree.
The CDC recommends avoiding handling chlorine in confined or poorly-ventilated areas, and staying upwind of it. Chlorine is not a known carcinogen (and tests on reproductive toxicity are currently inconclusive), but exposure beyond safe limits is known to cause cough, shortness of breath, pulmonary injury and Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS). Enough exposure to high concentrations of chlorine (1,000 ppm or greater) can cause death in 10 minutes or less.
Between 2001 and 2011, 14 Americans died from on-the-job chlorine exposure.
Chlorine reacts violently with ammonia, hydrogen, finely divided metals, and many other organic compounds. Thus, mixing chlorine with household chemicals and cleaners can produce dangerous or fatal chemical reactions.
Chlorine accidents usually involve gas leaks. A 2004 study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that chlorine gas releases were the #1 cause of facility evacuations in the U.S. between 1996 and 2001.
According to Scientific American, between 1993 and 2000 there were 865 chlorine-related accidents in the U.S.
Chlorine is one of the most commonly-used chemicals in America today. In addition to cleaning, it is used for everything from synthesizing plastics to manufacturing pharmaceuticals. Over 13 million tons of chlorine is produced in the United States each year. When this chlorine is transported by rail or truck, it poses the greatest risk of causing serious or fatal accidents. According to a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) study of accidents between 2005 to 2009, chlorine was the most serious cause of chemical injuries and deaths in these accidents (surpassing even gasoline). The DOT found that chlorine was the cause of 83 major injuries and nine fatalities in traffic and rail accidents during this time period.
Despite the dangers posed by chlorine, deaths from exposure while cleaning swimming pools seem to be very rare. (According to the CDC, “drowning deaths are by far the greatest problem at swimming pools.”) However, as this tragedy should make clear, any employee exposure to hazardous chemicals involves real risk and the potential for serious harm if accidents occur.