Perilous Pools Hundreds of Illinois Public Swimming Pools Fail to Comply with Safety Laws

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), August 3, 2010 | Go to article overview

Perilous Pools Hundreds of Illinois Public Swimming Pools Fail to Comply with Safety Laws


Byline: Jake Griffin jgriffin@dailyherald.com

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. …

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