The Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched an investigation into varying testing standards; other problems have surfaced as well.

By PATRICIA CALLAHAN , Chicago Tribune
Last update: February 8, 2011 - 12:34 AM

CHICAGO - Equipment meant to prevent powerful drains from causing people to drown in pools and hot tubs is being used across the country even though the products underwent flawed safety evaluations, then failed subsequent, more stringent tests, a Chicago Tribune investigation has found.

A confidential report describing one laboratory's tests concluded that the equipment "could result in serious injuries and or death." Yet the manufacturers and federal regulators have not alerted the public about potential safety problems.

At issue are drain covers meant to protect children and others from a grisly fate -- being trapped underwater by hundreds of pounds of suction from improperly covered drains in hot tubs and small pools in hotels and back yards.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates pools, has received complaints for two years that some models weren't working properly. But the CPSC didn't launch an investigation until last July. Subpoenas obtained by the Tribune show the agency is investigating whether differing testing procedures at independent labs allowed drain covers to be sold even though they don't comply with the law.

The safety concerns extend beyond the few models that failed tests. When an accreditation authority, the American National Standards Institute, investigated the lab that certified most U.S. drain covers, IAPMO R&T, its team found incorrect testing procedures that didn't accurately mimic the entrapment forces in a real pool or spa, records show.

No warning issued

The Tribune found that AquaStar Pool Products Inc., a company that makes some of the more popular drain covers, did not issue a warning to the public after one of its products failed tests at independent labs. Nor did the company widely recall the product. Instead, AquaStar asked its distributors to stop selling that model and return the remaining inventory. In a letter last July, the California company asked distributors "out of an abundance of caution" to notify past buyers of different installation instructions and offer a new plastic piece to raise the cover.

There was no public alert. Distributors sold more than 20,000 of the model, an attorney for AquaStar said.

CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson declined to comment on AquaStar's actions. In general, however, he said: "A company is not allowed to take unilateral action that is intended to fix a safety problem with their product without reporting and coordinating that action with the CPSC."

Steven Getzoff, an attorney for AquaStar, said the company's actions have been "perfectly lawful." Notifying distributors was the most efficient way to reach the pool professionals who typically buy the covers and know how to install and remove them without creating an entrapment hazard, Getzoff said.

To keep most pools sanitary, pumps move water through a filtering system that relies on one or more drains. When a drain cover is broken or missing or if a body covers all the holes in a cover, the pool's pump can act like a supercharged vacuum cleaner that tries to suck the person into the drain with hundreds of pounds of force. Children sitting on drains with missing covers have been disemboweled. Others died when hair became entangled in drains.

Federal, state laws

Between 1999 and 2009, federal regulators received reports of 94 entrapments in pools, hot tubs and whirlpool tubs, including a dozen deaths. A federal law passed in 2007 after a 7-year-old girl died in a hot tub requires public pools and spas to install anti-entrapment drain covers certified as having passed safety tests at one of three approved labs. Since then, more than a million of these covers were sold.

In May 2008, Minnesota enacted the Abigail Taylor Pool Safety Act requiring installation of anti-entrapment features on pool drains. The law was named after a 6-year-old Edina girl fatally injured in June 2007 when she inadvertently sat on an uncovered wading pool drain at the Minneapolis Golf Club in St. Louis Park. The suction ripped out part of Abigail's intestinal tract. She died nine months later.

The state law required that pools less than 4 feet deep have one of three anti-entrapment devices installed, and as of Jan. 1 of this year, regular swimming pools also fall under the law. Safety options include a large, unblockable suction outlet or drain; dual and parallel suction outlets, or a gravity drain.

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Pool Safety Tips

  • Use the Water Watchdog System to make sure children are always closely supervised in the pool area.

  • Remind kids to stay away from pool and hot tub drains.

  • Never dive into water less than 9 feet deep.

  • Keep gates to the pool area latched.

More water safety tips