Apr. 17, 2010 -- 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.
But new CPSC chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum asked for a review of the Pool Safety Act shortly after taking the helm of the commission last year, and called on representatives of the pool industry and pool safety advocates to make presentations to the commission. On behalf of the pool industry, pool equipment manufacturer Leif Zars argued that redesigned drain covers were enough to prevent pool suction accidents. Zars owns a company that manufactures large rounded drain covers that prevent suction.
A majority of the CPSC commissioners agreed with the pool industry's position. In March the CPSC voted 3 to 2 to reinterpret the law and drop the requirement that pool drains include a secondary anti-entrapment system. Now public and hotel pools will not have to install a secondary anti-entrapment system in order to be in compliance with the Pool Safety Act's wording of "unblockable drain."
Pool safety advocates argue that larger, rounded drain covers are not enough. In the summer of 2007, 6-year-old Zachary Cohn got trapped by the suction of the drain in his family's pool in Greenwich, Conn. His parents were unable to free him before he drowned.
"The size of the drain cover didn't matter in Zac's case," said John Procter, spokesperson for the Pool Safety Council, a non-profit safety advocacy group. "What killed him was the fact that [the drain cover] came off and exposed him to the suction of the drain itself. That's why layers of protection are so important - and part of the law."
The Cohn case is highlighted by safety advocates because the Cohn pool was new and had updated drain covers, but the builder did not install "backup layers of protection" like safety shut off valves or suction-limiting systems-the issue at the heart of the conflict surrounding the recent CPSC reinterpretation vote of the Pool Safety Act.
"The Commission not only defied the intent of the legislation by turning a blind eye to one of the specific risks that the Act is intended to eliminate, but also breached its custodial responsibility to protect the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death," wrote Nancy Baker and Karen Cohn in their letter to the CPSC after its vote. "As parents of children who have fallen victim to entrapment, we cannot stand by and allow others to experience the loss we have suffered."
"I was disappointed that the CPSC ruled against requiring layers of protection," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D.-Fla., who introduced and pushed for the passage of the Pool Safety Act. "This ruling leaves children's lives only as safe as the first layer of protection, which leaves them vulnerable to human error and mechanical failure, with no further layer of protection."
Pool safety watchdog groups were also very concerned. "The Virginia Graeme Baker law is all about layers of protection," said Paul Pennington, the founder of the Pool Safety Council. "It's shocking that [the CPSC] would change the interpretation so blatantly."
The CPSC's decision even went against the position of Chairman Tenenbaum. "In my role as Chairman," Tenenbaum said, "I am not willing to gamble the safety of our children in the hope that drain covers throughout the nation that are commonly removed for maintenance always will be reinstalled correctly or that a missing or broken drain cover will be immediately noticed by an observant pool operator who will then shut down the pool before any children are at risk."
In a statement, CPSC Commissioner Anne Northup, who sided with the majority, said that the Pool Safety Act "primarily addresses the miniscule portion of drownings attributable to entrapments" and that "unblockable drain covers are at least equally as effective in preventing or eliminating injury or death from drain entrapments as the other systems described in this statute."
Kirstin Pires, spokesperson for the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals, a trade group representing pool and spa manufacturers, said her group was "pleased" with the CPSC's decision. "We like what happened," said Pires. "Now we can go about the important business of making sure every pool is in compliance."
"The CPSC did the right thing," said Leif Zars. "I agree totally with their interpretation."