The decision by a federal agency to reinterpret a law meant to prevent deaths due to pool-drain accidents has outraged pool safety advocates and the parents of children killed by pool-drain suction.
"I was blown away," said Nancy Baker, mother of a seven-year-old who died in 2002. "It's sad that it will take more deaths to make them see the intent of the law."
Baker and Karen Cohn, mother of a six-year-old who died in 2007, sent an angry letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) after that agency recently voted to interpret the 2007 Pool Safety Act to no longer require back-up anti-entrapment systems in as many as 150,000 public and hotel pools and hot tubs.
"We urge you to reconsider and fulfill the intent of this important new law by installing the layers of protection that are required to mitigate-if not eliminate-incidences of drowning across this country," wrote Baker and Cohn. "There's too much at stake."
The vacuum effect in pool drains is powerful enough to hold swimmers, especially children, to the bottom of a pool. Contact between human skin and a flat pool drain can create suction equal to hundreds of pounds of pressure. In one horrific instance, four adult men were unable to pull a young girl from the grasp of a deadly drain. Swimmers can die from drowning or evisceration.
From 1999 to 2008, according to CPSC data, there were 83 reports of suction entrapment, including 11 deaths and 69 injuries. Experts say the number of deaths and injuries may be much higher, however, because police and medical records don't always list specific causes for drowning.
Nancy Baker's daughter Virginia Graeme Baker died in a tragic spa accident in 2002. The 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker died in her mother's arms after she sat on the underwater floor drain of a hot tub.
"I kept pulling at her, never understanding what was holding her down and I couldn't pull her off," said Nancy Baker. "I opened my eyes underwater and there aren't words to describe what this is like," she said. The suction pressure holding her daughter down was later estimated at 700 pounds.
"I really wish it wasn't my daughter," said Baker. "But when she died [the issue] moved from the back pages of the newspaper to the front pages of the newspaper."
In December 2007, in a rare bipartisan vote, Congress passed the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool And Spa Safety Act to provide basic drain safety standards and layers of backup protection from dangerous drain suction for the nation's public and hotel pools and hot tubs.
The law mandates that drains in about 300,000 of the nation's public and hotel pools and hot tubs be covered with larger, rounded covers that do not create suction, and that there be a back-up mechanical system installed in drains to prevent suction in those pools that have a single main drain. As many as half of the pools and hot tubs covered by the Pool Safety Act have single main drains.