More than 1,000 public pools fail to comply with safety laws
First of two parts
More than a thousand public pools in Illinois have yet to meet federal safety standards mandated nearly two years ago to prevent people from being trapped against drains and drowning. A joint investigation by the Daily Herald and ABC 7 revealed many of the noncompliant pools are operating at aquatic parks, fitness clubs, hotels, apartment complexes and even schools throughout the Chicago area.
In the North, Northwest and West suburbs within the Daily Herald coverage area, 243 public pools fail to meet federal safety standards.
Yet, most remain open.
"It's a federal crime for any of these pools to be open," said Paul Pennington, chairman of the Pool Safety Council, an advocacy group. "I'm not a lawyer, but I would certainly describe it as a federal crime scene."
Passage of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act required all public pools in the United States to meet a December 2008 deadline for outfitting drains with covers designed to prevent strong suction that can trap people underwater or entangle hair.
The law was named after former Secretary of State James Baker's granddaughter, a good swimmer who died at age 7 when suction from a hot tub drain held her underwater. It took two men to break the suction and pull the girl out.
The little girl was one of 70 people trapped by pool drains and killed since 1980, according to statistics Pennington provided. Another 150 people have been injured in similar incidents during the same time frame, including St. Charles teenager Alex Martinez, who almost died after being sucked into a drain at a Wheaton pool eight years ago. But Pennington fears there are many more victims, since entrapments are often reported simply as drownings and near-drownings, without details about how it happened.
The new law requires pools to have anti-suction drain covers that are often domed to keep a body from completely covering the drain and creating a tight seal. The new covers don't have large holes that can suck long hair into the drain. The law also requires that some water pumps have pressure release valves to prevent people from being vacuum-sealed to drains.
That's what happened to 6-year-old Abigail Taylor of Edina, Minn., who died in March 2008, nine months after she sat on a drain in a wading pool and had part of her intestinal tract sucked out.
Yet, fewer than 100 of the public pools needing modifications that are overseen by the Illinois Department of Public Health have been certified as complying with the federal law. Several hundred more are in limbo waiting for construction permits. State public health officials said they still haven't heard from 1,023 pool operators about how their facilities will be made compliant.
The story is somewhat different in DuPage County, the only county that handles its own inspections and permits for public pools. While DuPage County health officials claim only 20 of the 619 pools aren't complying, they admit they are taking the word of the pool operators that the modifications have been made and won't begin inspecting for the upgrades until next month. All the pools the state has on its compliant list have been inspected and approved.
Justin DeWitt, who heads the state health department's Swimming Facilities Program, said it could take several more years for all the state's public pools to be compliant. There are 1,910 public pools that required modifications, including those in DuPage County.
"That being said, the department is in the process of setting a firm time frame in which all facilities must have completed the work or applied for a permit," DeWitt said, "or they will receive a notice that they are being shut down immediately."
DeWitt said state amendments that made the law more stringent were added in February. State health officials then decided to allow the pools to operate out of compliance for financial reasons, he said.
"These facilities have historically been safe," DeWitt said. "We weigh that with economic and other effects that would be created if we shut down that many pools in the state of Illinois."
Many pool operators contacted by reporters said they were either compliant or had submitted paperwork to the state and were awaiting approval. But DeWitt said any pool listed as noncompliant hasn't contacted the state nor been approved for any modifications.
Managers at the Vista Hotel in Gurnee were unsure if the pool there was up to code because the facility had recently been placed in receivership with the Rosemont-based First Hospitality Group. They were unaware of the federal law and claimed to be managing dozens of hotels.
Officials from Eagle Brook Country Club in Geneva said the law doesn't apply to the pool there because the drainage system isn't suction- but rather gravity-powered. But the state still lists the facility as noncompliant.
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In most cases the fix is fairly inexpensive - less than $1,000 - and can be done without shutting down and draining the pool, Pennington said.
"It's frustrating to hear this because I didn't know the stats were that bad in Illinois," he said. "It's not hard to bring a pool into compliance. It takes just a couple hours."
For large aquatic parks, it's a different story. Multiple drains and multiple pumps mean more money. The Bloomingdale Park District's Oasis water park recently completed modifications that cost taxpayers $25,000. Rockford officials spent almost $200,000 to modify drains and pumps at an aquatic park there.
"We never had a problem with any of our drains," said Ed Reidy, director of parks and planning in Bloomingdale.
But Pennington warns that just because something hasn't gone wrong doesn't mean it won't.
Alex Martinez knows that all too well. When the 19-year-old was 11, he and his little brother were swimming in the pool at a Wheaton health club.
After going down the waterslide and swimming toward the ladder, he was overpowered by suction from a drain and ensnared against a drain grate while he was completely submerged. He almost drowned before someone noticed his body stuck against the wall of the pool. He suffered compression fractures to his spine and underwent months of physical therapy.
It happened before the new safety law went into effect, and the pool is now listed by DuPage County as being in compliance.
"The pools are gentle, sweet places," said Martinez's mother, Amy. "But there are still dangers lurking."
Pennington warned that even though compliance with the new law will make accidents much less likely, they could still happen.
"You need to tell your kids to stay away from pool drains," he said. "It's not luck, it's a miracle that Alex is alive."
• ABC 7 contributed to this report.
Pool safety rules
Here are some of the major changes required of drain covers and pumps at public pools following the passage of the Virginia Graeme Baker Act.
Dome: Drain covers should have a dome shape to prevent bodies from completely covering the outlets.
Holes: Drain covers should have holes only big enough to insert the tip of a dull pencil so long hair or body parts can't get stuck in the drain.
Stamp: Drain covers should have the letters "VGBA" stamped on the top to show that the device is compliant with the law. Covers are submerged when pools are operating and swimmers should not go to the drain to check for the stamp.
Pump: If there is only a single drain in the pool, the pump should be fitted with an emergency pressure release device that cuts off suction in the event of an entrapment.
Source: Daily Herald interviews
Here are ways people can be injured or killed by unsafe pool drains.
Entrapment: Swimmers too close to the drain can be sucked against the grate. If their bodies are big enough to completely cover the opening, vacuum pressure can build, making it impossible for submerged swimmers to free themselves and causing them to drown.
Entanglement: Suction ensnares swimmers' long hair in the drain and the grate, which can forcefully slam a swimmer's head into the floor of the pool or cause drowning.
Disembowelment: Rare occurrences when swimmers sit on a drain cover and the suction builds to a point where their intestines are pulled out.
Source: Daily Herald interviews