Draining situation


POSTED: Sunday, March 29, 2009

Question: A recent Associated Press article in the Star-Bulletin mentioned that many public swimming pools across the nation have not yet met the federal requirement to make pools safer by retrofitting them to protect children “;from the powerful and sometimes deadly suction of drains.”; What is the status of Hawaii public pools in meeting the requirement? I am especially interested in the Manana swimming pool in Pearl City, where my grandson takes swimming lessons.

Answer: The city's Manana pool, pictured at right, was retrofitted on Jan. 12.

Once the final federal regulations requiring public pools and spas to be made safer for children were issued last summer by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Department of Parks and Recreation immediately took action, said Director Lester Chang.

The city has 32 pools in 21 locations. As of last week, 23 of the 29 pools currently open were in compliance, Chang said.

Three pools — two in Waipahu and one in McCully — are closed for renovations, leaving six pools to be retrofitted.

The six pools awaiting equipment parts are in Central Oahu Regional Park, Kaneohe, Kalihi, Makiki, Palolo and Salt Lake.

Until those pools are retrofitted, Chang said parks staff has implemented “;extra procedures”; to make sure no goes near the drain areas.

It appears the city is ahead of most of the nation in meeting the new safety requirement under the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act of 2007, although the deadline for doing so was Dec. 19.

The major problems, pool operators say, were the relatively short time given to comply with the law and the shortage of approved drain covers and pumps needed to make them compliant.

The Associated Press story noted that there are nearly 300,000 public pools in the United States, but, as of mid-March, an official with the nonprofit National Swimming Pool Foundation estimated only about 30 percent had complied with the new law.

It's not known how many other public pools and spas on Oahu, or the rest of the islands, are compliant.

Sidney Doi, a program specialist with the state Department of Health's Sanitation Branch, said the department is not involved in monitoring compliance, but wouldn't doubt the figures given in the AP article.

He said calls to the Health Department about this matter are usually referred to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the new law.

The commission said it has been in contact with state and local health and safety agencies and is “;relying on them to be co-enforcers of the law.”;

The intent apparently was to have the states adopt the act's requirements into state rules so that the states/counties would or could do the enforcement, Doi said.

That was supposed to have been done via a grant program to assist the states, but at this point it doesn't appear any funding was appropriated.

Doi pointed out one problem with the grant program is its strict requirements for receiving funds, which would probably entail “;extensive amending to existing rules, regulations and building/plumbing codes.”;

It is significant to note that the definition of a “;public pool and spa”; covers a wide range of facilities.

Under the act, the term refers to a swimming pool or spa that is:

» Generally open to the public, whether for a fee or free of charge.

» Open exclusively to members of an organization and their guests; residents of a multiunit apartment building or complex, residential development or other multifamily residential area; or patrons of a hotel or other public accommodation facility.

» Operated by the federal government for members of the armed forces and their dependents or employees of any department or agency and their dependents.

Doi said it would be advisable for operators of public pools to check with their insurance providers and the Consumer Product Safety Commission about the new requirements.

Because of the number of pools involved and the relatively short time given for compliance, the governor of Washington has even asked for a two-year extension of the deadline.

“;It's a national concern because (the law) came down so quickly, and the pool equipment people were inundated with requests for parts,”; Chang said. But, “;We were one of the first ones on the list — we jumped on it early.”;

As the parts have come in, “;we've been installing them,”; Chang said, with Manana among the first to be retrofitted. “;We've been very aggressive”; in taking steps to ensure public safety, he said.

It also helped that no major plumbing work needed to be done. The retrofitting mainly has involved installing approved covers or providing extra protection in the covers.

The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act doesn't cover private pools, although it resulted from the drowning of a 7-year-old girl in a hot tub at a private residence in 2002.

The victim, the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker III, was sucked underwater by the force of a drain so powerful that it took two men to break it to release her body.

Her mother, Nancy Baker, lobbied Congress to pass the new law, which was signed by then-President Bush in December 2007.

In June of that year, a 6-year-old Minnesota girl's intestines were partially sucked out by a drain in a wading pool. She died in March 2008, suffering complications after having had transplants of her small bowel, liver and pancreas.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has given top priority to enforcing the law on pools and spas that pose the greatest risk, such as wading pools, pools designed for children and in-ground spas.