Heavy use of the swimming pools at the Y.M.CA. East Hampton RECenter is adversely affecting air quality there, necessitating an upgrade to the center’s ventilation, heating, and air-conditioning systems, according to its director.
The RECenter’s lap and training pools are used by up to 300 people per day, said Juan Castro, the director. This includes both residents and swimming teams from the RECenter and East Hampton High School.
“This pool and facility is heavily used, and at the level we’re experiencing now, we may have to add a secondary system to help with the air quality,” said Mr. Castro. The problem is worse in the winter, he said, when cold weather reduces ventilation. “It occurs with significant bather-load increases.”
The pool’s water quality poses no health hazard, Mr. Castro insisted. The Suffolk County Department of Health has visited twice in the last month, he said, but it does not test the air quality. “They check water-quality procedures. They also responded to the fact that there may be some air-quality issues, but we meet the standards of the Health Department.” A consultant will test the air in the pool areas soon, he said, a process that will take two weeks.
An engineer will also inspect the facility’s heating and ventilation system to determine if it should be modified. “Nobody is saying we can’t improve air quality. We may have to adapt our current system to meet the demands of increased participation,” said Mr. Castro.
Xiaoyu Chen, the county’s assistant public health engineer, declined to talk about the RECenter except to say that “we didn’t find any public health hazard.” But reports from swimmers of breathing difficulties, diarrhea, coughing fits, and skin rashes have some people concerned.
East Hampton Village leases the property on which the RECenter is situated to East Hampton Town, which in turn licenses the center to the Young Men’s Christian Association of Long Island. A five-year license renewal is set to take effect on Jan. 1. Under terms of the agreement, the town makes an annual payment of $590,000 to the Y.M.C.A. The town is also responsible for the cost of capital repairs, including “replacement of the roof, boilers, electrical lighting system, HVAC system, pool and pool pumps, etc.,” according to the agreement.
The RECenter’s original design capacity will not support the present level of use, said Town Councilman Dominick Stanzione, who agreed with Mr. Castro that air quality worsens in the winter. “Once you get into the off-season and everything is buttoned up, that puts more pressure on the ventilation. But I have to go with Juan and say there’s some analysis that needs to be done on that. As far as requests to upgrade the chlorination system, I think it’s about $20,000 of requests for that. The balance of it probably has to be more, and they’re looking for professional analysis on that.”
The town board will have to review the request, said Mr. Stanzione, but he expects the board to agree to capital improvements. “Those who say that’s a significant contribution by the taxpayers to the operations of that facility, you’d have to agree with that. But lease terms are lease terms, and we have to live by those. They’ve made a request that seems reasonable, and we’ll bring it to the board and act on it.” The board’s next work session is on Jan. 8.
Steve Kenney, who owns SRK Pools, a Wainscott-based company that constructs, services, and maintains residential swimming pools, said the RECenter has long been operating in a negligent and even dangerous fashion. Mr. Kenney said in an interview that his children experienced severe coughing fits, stomach pain, and diarrhea after swimming there, and that other bathers, including RECenter swim instructors, have reported similar symptoms as well as skin irritation. These symptoms, he said, are indicative of waterborne pathogens that the RECenter is not controlling.
Chlorine-based disinfectants have long been the most popular treatment to kill pathogens in swimming pools. But when chlorine bonds with ammonia that is excreted from the body via perspiration or other fluids, a byproduct, chloramine, is formed. Exposure to chloramine gas can contribute to respiratory problems.
An extreme chloramine level at the RECenter, Mr. Kenney maintained, is responsible for the symptoms he described. “That’s going to make your eyes burn and your lungs tighten up, and it’s going to irritate your skin,” he said. The chlorine-ammonia bond, he said, has to be broken so that chlorine is free to fight bacteria. Oxidizing the bond is accomplished by adding more chlorine, a process known as shock chlorination, or through ozone or ultraviolet-based treatment systems.
Poor air quality at the pools, said Mr. Kenney, is the result of poor water treatment. Compounding the problem, he said, is the swimming pool industry’s over-reliance on chlorine, from which some pathogens are now immune. Among these are cryptosporidium, which has sickened bathers at pools around the country and the world. Cryptosporidium infection, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or abdominal cramps, is most dangerous to elderly and young bathers and those with compromised immune systems. Only an ozone or utraviolet-based treatment system, said Mr. Kenney, will kill cryptosporidium and other chlorine-resistant pathogens.
Mr. Kenney said he had suggested treatment systems to RECenter officials several times, and acknowledged the appearance of a conflict of interest. But he insisted that he was motivated simply by the wish that all children be able to use the pools safely. He forwarded to The East Hampton Star an e-mail from an instructor at the center that attributed adverse health effects to the pools, mentioned a relative who complained of symptoms after swimming, and described frustration with a management that has ignored complaints.
“Every instructor I’ve spoken to there — and I’ve spoken to about six over the past eight years — said, ‘You’ve got to do something, I can’t teach here anymore,’ ” said Mr. Kenney.
The author of the e-mail declined to speak on the record. Neither Tom Cohill, aquatics director at the RECenter, nor Joseph Vasile-Cozzo, East Hampton High School’s athletic director, had responded to multiple calls as of Monday.
Mr. Castro said Mr. Kenney’s accusations were misguided as well as inaccurate. “This is the first time we’ve had these kinds of claims,” he said. “You have individuals that want to sell us something, and what they’re selling is supposedly going to fix our problem. I have 300 people in there every day, and I’m not having a mass of people breaking out. To the Health Department, we manage it within acceptable limits.”
The RECenter is in the midst of upgrading its water-treatment systems, said Mr. Castro, and its request to the town for capital improvements is part of that effort. “But before you jump to conclusions, you’ve got to do due diligence,” he said. “We should not make this more complicated than it is. Can we improve things? Absolutely. Are we operating an unsafe facility? No.”