CHICAGO -- Thousands of public and private pools across the country will have to be retrofitted with new safety equipment after a recall Thursday of drain covers that may not protect swimmers from being trapped and drowning.
In announcing the recall of 1 million pool and spa drain covers, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said public pools with the faulty equipment should remain closed until the problem is fixed. The federal agency said it was deploying recall inspectors who have the authority to close down pools.
"I know this is a very difficult message for many communities to hear so close to Memorial Day weekend, but we cannot risk a child becoming entrapped in a recalled drain cover," said Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the safety agency.
A 2007 federal law, named after Virginia Graeme Baker, a 7-year-old girl who died in a spa, requires public pools and spas to install anti-entrapment drain covers. All the recalled covers were labeled as complying with that law, so pool owners thought they were protected from the hazard.
But a Tribune investigation in February showed that some of the newer drain covers had undergone flawed safety evaluations and failed subsequent, more stringent tests. Without proper covers, pool and spa drains can trap people under water with hundreds of pounds of suction force.
Many municipalities, hotels and other organizations with pools were alerted to the recall by the Tribune on Thursday but weren't immediately sure if their pool drain covers were part of the recall. The drain covers, often at the bottom of pools, have subtle labeling, making it a difficult to find model numbers.
Some pools and spas at YMCAs throughout the country might be affected and could be temporarily closed although most will remain open, said Kevin Dietz, a spokesman for YMCA of the USA..
The recall includes complex instructions. Swimming pools that rely on one drain and a backup safety system that shuts off a pool pump when it senses a vacuum will have to replace recalled drain covers, while those same type of pools with more than one drain but no backup safety system won't have to get new drain covers.
At the same time, all kiddie pools, wading pools and spas -- regardless of the number of drains they have--must close if they have recalled covers, and they cannot reopen until those covers are replaced or fixed.
To Paul Pennington, founder of the Pool Safety Council, excluding the deeper, multiple-drain swimming pools "makes no sense" since swimmers can still get trapped underwater in them. Pennington, who has been complaining about unsafe drain covers for more than two years, fears another child will die.
"Why wouldn't you replace all the bad drain covers? This is scary," said Pennington, who has an ownership stake in a company that makes the back-up vacuum-release systems.
Pamela Gilbert, who used to represent the Pool Safety Council pro bono and is the former executive director of the CPSC, said the recall was confusing.
"Recalls are usually more straightforward: 'Here's a problem. It's dangerous. Here's how to fix it.,"' she said. "This is full of 'yes, but you don't have to in this case or that case.' "
CPSC Spokesman Scott Wolfson said deeper, dual-drain pools were left out of the recall because they were seen as less risky than kiddie pools, wading pools, spas and bigger pools with just one drain.
"Anyone who states that CPSC is putting the safety of children at risk is failing to recognize that we have increased the safety of pools and spas through our investigation of the pool industry," Wolfson wrote.
Wolfson said pool operators confused by the recall should call the manufacturer of their pool drain covers and follow up with the CPSC if they still have questions.
The recall includes dozens of models made by eight manufacturers: A&A Manufacturing, AquaStar Pool Products Inc., Color Match Pool Fittings Inc., Custom Molded Products Inc., Hayward Pool Products, Pentair Water Pool and Spa, Rising Dragon USA and Waterway Plastics.
A major hurdle for federal regulators was the recognition that, while many of the drain covers themselves are not very expensive, hiring a pool professional to replace or retrofit them can cost hundreds of dollars. Federal regulators did not want consumers who paid $20 for a defective drain cover to then pay for the re-installation. Under the recall, the labor is covered as long as the consumer arranges the service through the manufacturer.
The Tribune investigation in February revealed that an accreditation authority responding to complaints about drain covers in 2010 sent a team to watch tests at IAPMO R&T, a national lab that certified many drain covers. The team found what it considered improper testing procedures.
A report sent by the team's leader to all the witnesses concluded that some pool drain covers certified by IAPMO "could result in serious injuries and or death."
One of those drain covers, the AquaStar LP8AV, was recalled Thursday, but two others were not. An IAPMO executive at the time of the Tribune investigation stood by the company's tests and said labs could get different results depending on how they interpreted the safety standard.
The CPSC said the recalled drain covers were "improperly rated" by multiple labs, although the agency declined to name them. The agency has convinced all of the testing labs to use the CPSC's methods.
The agency had received safety complaints about the drain covers for more than two years but didn't launch an investigation until last July. The federal investigation involved the review of more than 17,000 pages of documents subpoenaed from testing labs, evaluations of many models and a public meeting in which CPSC staff questioned lab officials.
(Tribune reporters Ellen Gabler and Jared Hopkins contributed to this report.)
What pool owners should do:
Check the drain-cover brand. Do not block the drain cover while looking for the brand or model number and do no try to remove the drain cover. That could lead to a deadly hazard. More information is available at the recall hotline at (866) 478-3521 or www.apsp.org/draincoverrecall.
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