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Friday, August 19, 2016

Green – the new official Olympic pool colour?

With the Olympic hype in the air, I thought I would keep the theme going.  Last week in the “Let down of Olympic proportions” blog, I lamented over the fact that all of the hype over hygiene conditions and illness seemed to be for naught.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I’m hoping that the athletes, their families or spectators get sick.  It's just amazing to me that a little media hype over the potential of getting sick is probably enough to remind people to do what they should be doing!  Washing their hands!

That said, I’m not sure any media hype would have helped the “green pool” situation……   I’m sure that many of you have seen the pictures of the bright green pool.   Who could miss it?!  A google search for “green pools in Rio” lead to 87,200,000 in just 0.67 seconds!  That has to be a world record of some sort!  Wading through the plethora of articles you need to be a bit of a detective and not believe verbatim everything that you read.

What seems to be consistent is that an inadvertent addition of a large quantity of hydrogen peroxide to the pools was added - around 160 litres or 42 gallons to be exact - which essentially inactivated the ‘chlorine’.  The fact that mixing hydrogen peroxide and chlorine together will inactivate each other is true.  This reaction essentially will degrade the chlorine to a point where it is no longer effective meaning certain “organic compounds” (i.e. algae, probably) could grow in the pool.  According to the various news articles I scoured, when the pools first turned green, officials were mystified as to why they suddenly had one blue pool, and one green one. Initially they put it down to a chemical imbalance, which was technically correct, but were uncertain of the root cause of the problem.  Then, according to accounts from some athletes, the green pools started smelling like farts.

While somewhat humorous, this really is not a laughing matter.  Mixing chemicals deliberately or inadvertently can lead to serious health risks.  In this case the mixing of chlorine and hydrogen peroxide seems to have been an error.  One that causes the water to turn green, but did not have a significant health threat.   As many articles indicate the green colour was a result of an algae bloom.  In chatting with my R&D experts it is also conceivable that the green colour was due to the use of an indicator that turns green when the chlorine levels are depleted in the pool.  In this scenario, if the water turns acidic by addition of an acidic formulation by mistake, the chlorine would degrade and the indicator would visually show this depletion.

Regardless, mixing of chemicals can be dangerous and this highlights the importance of effective training to ensure those tasked with using chemicals to chlorinate pools or clean environmental surfaces understand the potential deadly impact that mixing chemicals can have.  As I coined back in 2011, the “Custodial Chemist” is very prevalent. This group of people believe that their collective years as professional cleaners is far more knowledgeable then formulating chemists who have years of education in chemistry or chemical engineering and develop the products the Custodial Chemist use. The Custodial Chemist is someone who mixes products together in the belief they are making a better product (or simplifying their job). Why use a degreaser or glass cleaner followed by a disinfectant when you can mix them together and create a degreaser-disinfectant or the best disinfectant glass cleaner on the market?!

Of course in Rio we’re not talking about cleaning windows, but regardless of the root cause of how hydrogen peroxide was added to the pool, a Custodial Chemist was obviously lurking at the poolside!

Bugging Off!


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