Oregon public pools fall short in meeting federal safety law
Written by Tracy Loew June 8, 2013
Fewer than half of Oregon's public pools have met the requirements of a 2008 federal law designed to keep people from being trapped against swimming pool and spa drains, state health officials estimate.
The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act requires public pools nationwide to fit drains with covers that prevent strong suction that can trap people underwater.
It was named after the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker. A good swimmer, the 7-year-old died when the suction from a hot tub drain trapped her underwater.
Since 1980, at least 70 people have been killed and 150 injured in such accidents. The law is enforced by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Oregon law expressly states that state officials will not enforce it.
"We have taken the approach of being educational about it. We've tried to get the information out. We've shared stuff with pool operators," said Stephen Keifer, who oversees pools for the Oregon Health Authority. "But we don't enforce it." As a result, he said, "It is probably way over 50 percent of pools that aren't in compliance yet."
Part of the problem is the expense, he said. For an older, smaller apartment pool, the fix may run $1,500, Keifer said. For larger pools, it could be $100,000 to $150,000.
All of the large public pools in Marion and Polk counties have complied, health officials in those counties said. "It's mostly the smallest pools, the motels, that are most likely not to have had it," said Rick Sherman of Marion County Health Department.
It's difficult to know how many accidents have been caused by the drains in Oregon. State law requires pool operators to submit a report for every doctor-treated accident or death at their facilities to the Oregon Health Authority. But the data isn't reliable, Keifer said.
There's no penalty for not filing a report, and many pool operators don't bother, especially if an accident isn't serious or fatal. Only 177 reports have been filed statewide over the past 12 years. They include 21 deaths. No accidents or deaths involving drain suction have been reported in Oregon. In Marion and Polk counties, the 189 pools, spas and splash pads have filed only 10 reports during that time--three in Salem, two in Silverton and five in Woodburn.
They included two deaths: In May 2006, Griselda Jalicia-Sixto, 8, was found on the bottom of the Woodburn Aquatic Center pool. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead. She was taking part in an activity with classmates from Heritage Elementary School. In March 2012, a 64-year-old man who had been swimming laps at Salem's Kroc Center was found unconscious in the pool. Paramedics' attempts to revive the man were unsuccessful.
The reports don't just document accidents for lawsuits or legal reasons, Keifer said.
They also point out trends that can be addressed. A decade ago, reports showed a spike in drownings from children entering pool areas when they weren't supposed to, either from inadequate enclosures or exiting a building through a pool area, Keifer said.
"We eventually got some changes into the rule as well as a change in the building code," he said.
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