Improperly covered pool drains can lead...

Las Vegas Review-Journal
May 18, 1997


Improperly covered pool drains can lead to a serious injury or death

By Joan Whitely

Child disemboweled by sitting on swimming pool drain. It sounds like a lurid, but phony, tabloid headline. It’s not.

Serious injury, or death, can occur if a suction "lock" occurs when hair or a body part gets trapped in a pool or spa drain.

The family of a North Carolina girl in January won a settlement of $30.9 million for a 1993 drain cover accident. The victim, Valerie Lakey, 5 at the time, lost most of her intestines. Now it takes 11 hours a day to feed her intravenously.

Many Las Vegas pool owners are failing to take simple steps to keep accidents from happening in their own back yard, industry experts say.

Lakey got stuck when she sat on the drain in a wading pool at a recreation club. The drain cover was not bolted down and playful children had removed it.

Her bottom blocked the drain, causing the pool’s pump to suck her tight to the drainpipe. Even though witnesses shut off the pump, she was severely injured.

An East Coast teen-ager drowned in the spring of 1996 when she entered a hot tub at a post-prom party, and happened to sit on an old, brittle drain cover that gave way with her weight. Witnesses couldn't free her from the pump's powerful suction. By the time someone turned off the pump, the submerged victim was dead.

Such events are rare, but devastating.  Yet they are largely preventable by careful pool maintenance.

"I’ve literally refastened hundreds of spa drain covers," says Art Ellison, who runs American Pool Service, a division of Acidwashers, which Ellison has owned 15 years.

The average homeowner doesn’t know anything about the threat of what pool professionals call drain entrapment, which can occur when a pool or spa drain is missing, broken or of outmoded design, Ellison says.

A "20/20" segment that aired in August 1996 warned of pool entrapments in older pools that weren’t well-maintained.

But new pools also pose problems. Ellison fears that trends toward stronger pool pumps and shallower "play" pools will lead to more entrapments in back yards across the country: "A 70-pound kid that might not get stuck to plumbing 10 years ago is going to get stuck to it now."

Most disheartening to Ellison is when he has drained a pool for repairs and points out to the owner that the drain cover is missing but a new one can easily be installed—and is ignored.

"I’d say about 50-50, they turn me down," Ellison estimates. It costs about $125 to measure, purchase and put in a new cover.

When a pool is empty is also the ideal time to trade an unsafe grate-style drain cover for a so-called "anti-vortex" design, he says.

The latter has holes only around its edges. Unlike a grated cover, an anti-vortex dram cover does not lie flush with the pool bottom but is raised, which makes it less likely that any body part could entirely cover all the holes at once.

But even an anti-vortex dram cover has limited value if it’s not permanently installed, Ellison says. A single swipe of a pool brush can dislodge a cover that’s held into place only by its plastic tabs.

Curious children, too, can easily pop off covers attached this way. "Kids will intentionally rip them off," Ellison warns. "It’s one of their favorite things to do."

Some drains are located in the sides of pools and spas-within easy reach.

Ellison says his employees find a lot of unsafe flat grates—and safe covers that aren’t bolted down—even in brand new pools.

Make sure all drain covers are fastened with stainless-steel screws or bolts, Ellison says. Other materials will eventually fail—and leave stains as they corrode. Epoxies that work underwater are a second, less preferred choice for securing a drain cover, he notes.

If a homeowner wants to replace spa drain covers himself, he can avoid electrical shock by using a cordless, battery-operated drill. Usually an empty spa is still damp.

Phil Kendall, director of operations at Wet ‘n Wild, confirms the importance of screwing down drain covers, and routinely inspecting them. "They’re all secured by bolts," Kendall explains. "It’s on check sheets that our maintenance people have to do at opening and close of the park."

While parents can control the safety of drains in their own pool, aren’t their hands tied when a child is a swim guest elsewhere? An emphatic no is the answer from representatives of the Bennett Family

YMCA, who offer the following tips:

 Teach children with long hair never to go into a pool or spa unless they tie up their hair or wear a cap. Warn them to stay away from drains, and why.
 Before allowing a child to swim at a friend’s house, check the pool rules, pool

condition and degree of supervision.

 At a public or commercial pool—at a motel, for instance, where a lifeguard may not be present—personally check that drains are covered before allowing a child to swim.
 When a guest, find out where the cutoff switch is for a pool or spa pump—or make sure the lifeguards know where the switches are.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety

Commission released a safety alert last summer in the wake of several highly publicized incidents of drain entrapment.

Since 1978, it has gathered reports of 49 incidents of hair entanglement in pool and spa drains, in which the victim’s head was held under water. That includes 13 deaths.

Since 1980, the commission has collected reports of 18 incidents in which body parts have been entrapped by suction. Ten resulted in disembowelment, five in death.

According to Ken Giles, a spokesman for the commission, voluntary standards are being developed for new pools and spas. One option includes a dual drain system, so that if one dram is blocked the other is not, and suction is still prevented. But Ellison doubts consumers will go for the higher price of altering their pools unless forced to by tougher laws: "It’s obvious you have to do twice as much plumbing in that area."

Another option under development for pools both new and old is a sensor that goes inside a pump to shut it off when a dram gets obstructed. An alarm also goes off.

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