Underwater Spas pose hidden danger, especially to children

Sun-Sentinal
July 3, 2006

Underwater drains in spas and pools pose hidden dangers, especially to children

By Diane C. Lade
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted July 3 2006

 

Silence is what alerted Monique Chernin that something was terribly wrong.

She was at her West Palm Beach home with her children two weeks ago, cleaning the pool while 7-year-old Brenden, trying out his new swim goggles, splashed in the spa nearby with his little sister.

Suddenly, there was no sound, and she turned to see Brenden motionless and submerged. Jumping in, Chernin discovered his chest was held to the spa's floor by the drain's suction so tightly she couldn't wedge her fingers underneath him. By the time she was able to free her son, he had been under water two minutes.

Brenden survived. But many others caught in pool and spa drain suction each year do not.

South Floridians understand they must watch out for rip currents and swim at guarded beaches and pools. But most know nothing about a deadly danger that can hide in plain sight at a hotel, a community fitness center or in their own backyards.

It's called entrapment -- when the supercharged suction from insufficiently covered drains in spas and pools pins a bather underwater. The pressure is so intense that even strong swimmers can't escape, and desperate would-be rescuers can't free them.

Six years ago, Florida passed stricter codes for new pools and spas. Yet thousands of residential and public facilities still have drain systems that can snare victims.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has documented 130 entrapment incidents nationwide since 1990, 25 of them fatal. And it is thought there probably are many more that go unreported because most states, including Florida, do not keep entrapment statistics.

More than three-fourths of the identified incidents involved children, with a median age of 9.

"The bottom line is we need a lot more protection," said U.S. Rep Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who is sponsoring legislation encouraging states to adopt laws requiring entrapment-prevention systems, pool fencing and other safety measures. "Drowning is the most common cause of death among children under age, 5 and it's a totally preventable tragedy."

Monique Chernin knew where the spa's pump switch was located, so she could turn it off after finding her son under water. But by then, Brenden had stopped breathing. He was blue when she pulled him out, the drain's outline pressed into his bruised and cut flesh.

"I was afraid to start CPR. I was afraid I would hurt him more, crush his chest," she recalls. But she did, and by the time paramedics arrived, her son had taken a few shallow breaths.

Brenden, recuperating in Superman pajamas at St. Mary's Medical Center last week, said he remembers nothing. The doctors, who initially told his parents Brenden might have brain damage, say he should recover completely.

He said he wants to get back home to his room, with its Spider-Man mural, karate trophies and action figures.

"But I'm not going in the Jacuzzi," he says shyly. "Just the pool."

Florida is one of few states requiring pools and spas to have systems designed to prevent entrapment, as well as fencing and gate regulations. There are three components to prevent intense suction: a domed rather than a flat drain, two drain outlets at least 3 feet apart rather than one and a safety vacuum release system that will break the vacuum when intense pressure occurs.

Modern drain covers also prevent hair from becoming entangled in the drains, the most common type of entrapment found by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

But the Florida code applies only to pools and spas built after July 2001. Florida has about 1.25 million residential pools, according to the Florida Swimming Pool Association. About 750,000 of them, including the one at the Chernins' house, were built with the old systems.

The 11,300 South Florida public pools and spas in community centers, hotels and condos regulated by the Florida Department of Health also are not required to update their drain systems if they were built more than five years ago, unless they do major renovations, health department officials said.

Don Cesarone, an association board member and general manager for Van Kirk and Sons pool construction company based in Deerfield Beach, says his company insists new drain systems be installed when doing repairs.

But a legislative proposal several years ago, that would have required homeowners to upgrade their old pool and spa drains before selling their homes, received little support, Cesarone said.

Wasserman Schultz said her bill, which still is being crafted, may include some requirements for retrofitting over time. Her legislation, if approved, would allocate $25 million to be divided among states that passed laws meeting the federal model.

Former Secretary of State James Baker, who served three Republican presidents, lost a granddaughter to spa entrapment and has been supporting Wasserman Schultz's efforts.

Safety advocates, however, say homeowners can protect themselves now by examining their drain systems and upgrading them if necessary.

Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation, a nonprofit safety and education organization, added that other precautions also can reduce risks. The main one: Parents never should leave their children unattended.

Diane Lade can be reached at 561-243-6618 or dlade@sun-sentinel.com.


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