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Alameda County readies pools for a safe summer

on April 25, 2009

As the California heat begins to usher in the summer, as well as usher water enthusiasts into the swimming pools, counties, including Alameda County, are integrating a new federal law that will further protect people from accidental drownings in public pools and spas.  All hotels, community recreation centers, and high schools must install new federally-approved drain covers to prevent swimmers from being held down by the suction force of water ducts.

All swimming pool and hot tubs have drainage systems in order to clean the water, but the suction power of some drains is strong enough to trap swimmers at the bottom of pools and spas and drown them.  While the suction created can be powerful enough to hold down an adult’s body, small children and swimmers with shoulder-length or longer hair are at the greatest of for entrapment.

According to a report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (UCPS) released in March 2005, between 1990 and 2004, there were 74 reported cases of body entrapment in pool and spa drainage systems.  Thirteen of those cases resulted in deaths.  The commission suggests that there may be  many more unreported incidences of body entrapment.

In December, 2007, this safety hazard prompted Congress to pass the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool Spa and Safety Act.  Named after former US Secretary of State James Baker’s granddaughter, who drowned in a hot tub, the law forces all public pools and spas to install drainage covers designed to prevent accidental deaths by making it harder for a swimmer to become entangled with the drain.

According to Ariu Levy, Director of Alameda County’s Environmental Health Department, the agency has notified roughly 1,500 local water facilities of the need to install these drain covers immediately, and the county’s 22 pool inspectors have received the necessary training in order to determine compliance.  In an email, Levy explained that “sites found not to be in compliance will be given a period of time to submit plans and complete the necessary work to meet the new standards.”

The new law has affected some public pools more than others. “Our pool already meets the new regulation requirements, so we’re lucky,” said Michael Moran, Aquatic and Safety Director at the Oakland YMCA.  “But I’ve heard from people working at other pools in the area … and they have to pay a lot of money for the improvements.” Some poolsare even going to close because they can’t afford the total cost of repairs, which, according to Moran, can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.  “If we had to pay several thousands of dollars,” he said, “we would have to close our pool too…we can’t afford that.”


A VGB Act-approved drain cover

But according to Don Atkinson-Adams, an environmental health specialist with the county, the drain cover replacements should be affordable.  “The cost to install them don’t typically cost more than a thousand dollars,” he said, suggesting that the heftier bills somefacilities face are probably derived from other more drastic repairs they must make in order to meet other safety standards.

Atkinson-Adams said the county is taking a practical approach to enforcing the rules.  “Yes, we’re going to shut down a pool that poses an immediate safety hazard,” he said.  “But if a facility follows the rules and is trying to comply, we’ll work with them…we’re pushing to have all the pools in compliance by the end of the year.”

Some pool professionals say the new standards are worth the fuss. “I’ve worked on some hot tub drains where the suction is so strong, my arm gets glued to it,” said Dale Hiebing, owner of The Pool Doctor, a pool and spa repair and servicing company in El Sobrante.  “And hot tubs can be especially dangerous because small kids can easily get to the bottom of them.”

According to Hiebing, powerful suction occurs when a body blocks most of the drainage hole.  “It’s like when you put your hand over a vacuum, it sucks you in,” he said.  But the new covers make blocking the water flow impossible—they either have jagged grooves or tiny holes that prevent a person from covering the whole drain, or they’re designed in a way that decentralizes water flow so the drain doesn’t gather the suction that makes it hazardous.

Although the new law only mandates the changes for public facilities, Hiebing recommends that private owners change their pool and spa drain covers as well.  “A lot of the pools in Oakland homes are pretty old,” he said.  “They normally have a single drainage pipe that’s so small in diameter that the suction it creates is incredibly strong…anyone who has a grandchild or a young kid around should get those drains covered.”

For more information about the VGB Act, visit the Alameda Environmental Health Department website.  For more on pool safety, go to the National Swimming Pool Foundation.



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