WASHINGTON – Unless new anti-drowning drain covers are installed, tens of thousands of public swimming pools and hot tubs could be forced to close Saturday under a sweeping law designed to prevent drain suction from trapping children under water.
The rules apply to pools and spas used by the public, including municipal pools and those at hotels, private clubs, apartment buildings and community centers.
The improved drain systems were outlined in legislation passed by Congress a year ago. Pool and spa operators had a year to comply; Friday is the deadline for installing the new equipment.
Nancy Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said Monday the agency will focus initially on public baby pools and wading pools, as well as in-ground spas that have flat drain grates on the bottom and just one drain system.
"We will be focusing our initial efforts on the littlest swimmers in the littlest pools," Nord told reporters.
Nord said, however, that Congress did not give her agency the $7 million needed to enforce the law. As a result, the federal government expects states to take on much of the enforcement responsibility.
The issue received heightened attention after the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James A. Baker was sucked onto a spa drain in 2002. She drowned despite efforts to pry her off.
The National Swimming Pool Foundation, a nonprofit group in Colorado Springs, Colo., said about 80 percent of the 300,000 public pools and spas in the United States do not comply with the new rules and may have to close.
It said the cost of complying with the new law would range from $1,000 to $15,000 per pool. A variety of factors, including the availability of compliant drains and the workers to install them, determine the eventual price tag. Given current economic conditions, that's a potentially heavy financial burden for local governments.
Nord had no sense of how many pool and spa owners had installed the new equipment or how many might have to close. "We have limited resources and we don't have the resources to send federal safety inspectors to every single pool," Nord said.
At the same time, she said, her agency reserves the right to take action against violators.
The legislation bans the manufacture, sale or distribution of drain covers that don't meet anti-entrapment safety standards.
New models use a hump-shaped drain cover rather than the flat style that more easily attains suction with a child's body. Pools with just one drain also are required to install a second drain system, or external shut-off.
Alan Korn, public policy director of the Washington-based nonprofit group Safe Kids Worldwide, said the vast majority of American swimmers don't realize that the bottom of pools and spas and wading pools are a hidden hazard, especially to children.
He said one person dies because of pool or spa drain suction in a typical year. His agency cited 33 deaths of children under age 14 between 1985 and 2004.
The new drain-cover rule also applies to new portable hot tubs sold for backyard use by consumers. The rules to do not apply to existing hot tubs.
The Association of Pool & Spa Professionals says its existing drain covers are safe and wants Nord's agency to recognize that new equipment entails a flow level below what is needed to run a portable hot tub, said spokesman Dick Wolfe.
Wolfe said virtually all the 70 or so hot tub manufacturers in the country would go out of business if they had to build their spas to meet the new requirements. The group has asked CPSC for an exemption for hot tubs.
Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the CPSC, said the agency was reviewing the association's request.