By Bud Coburn
While drowning is a well-publicized danger associated with swimming pools, comparatively little has been reported about injuries and deaths caused by pool drains. Water rushing out of the drain creates a suction that can ensnare swimmers, usually small children, causing debilitating injuries and deaths. These drains come standard in swimming pools, hot tubs and wading pools, and while they appear harmless, inspectors and parents alike should understand how they could cause harm.
Drain covers can break or be removed by people who are unaware of the possible repercussions. When this happens, a swimmer playing with the drain may become stuck to it in a way similar to how a vacuum will stick to the palm of the hand, but with much more force; 350 pounds of pressure is normal for a pool drain, and public pools are even more powerful. This “suction entrapment” can hold the bather in the drain’s grasp until the person drowns or escapes, often seriously injured.
In July of 2007, Abigail Taylor, a 6-year-old Minnesota girl, was hospitalized after being severely injured when she sat over an open drain in a wading pool. The suction from the drain, which did not have a cover, pulled out her small intestine, requiring her to be fed intravenously. She died months later, joining the 36 other people, mostly children, who are known to have been killed in similar accidents since 1990. The actual numbers are likely much higher, as physicians often do not distinguish drowning caused by drainage suction from ordinary drowning.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) distinguishes between five types of drain entrapment:
- body entrapment, where a section of the torso becomes entrapped. The CPSC is aware of 74 cases of body entrapment, including 13 confirmed deaths, between January 1990 and August 2004. The deaths were the result of drowning after the body was held against the drain by the suction of the circulation pump;
- limb entrapment, where an arm or leg is pulled into an open drain pipe;
- hair entrapment or entanglement, where hair is pulled in and wrapped around the grate of the drain cover. The CPSC is aware of 43 incidents of hair entrapment or entanglement in pools, spas and hot tubs between January 1990 and August 2004. Twelve of the incidents resulted in drowning deaths;
- mechanical entrapment, where jewelry or part of the swimmer’s clothing gets caught in the drain or grate; and
- evisceration, where the victim’s buttocks come into contact with the pool suction outlet and he or she is disemboweled. While these accidents are rare, they result in lifelong impairment.
While laws regulating swimming pools are complex and vary by state, it is still helpful for inspectors to learn the following ways in which pool drains can be made safer.
- Make sure the drain cover is present and firmly attached. If the drain cover is missing or damaged, no one should be allowed to enter the pool, and a professional should be contacted immediately. The CPSC requires anti-entrapment drain covers to be installed in all public pools, as of December 2008.
- Make sure there is a safety snap fitting serving the ground pool cleaner. These devices automatically suck away dirt and leaves, but if they become disconnected from the suction fitting at the pool wall, a hazardous situation can develop. A safety snap fitting is a spring-loaded stopper that will end any suction through the port if any disconnection occurs.
- Check to see if there is a safety vacuum-release system. This device will cause the drainage to automatically cease if any entrapment occurs.
- Check for anti-entanglement drain covers. These are a type of fitting that is molded in a particular way so as to prevent hair entanglement.
- Use no drains at all. Gutters and overflows can be used to provide water to the pump without the need for a drain.
- Install an additional drain. According to the CPSC, “Providing multiple outlets from the pool to the suction-side of the pump allows flow to continue to the pump, and reduces the likelihood of an entrapping suction being generated when a body blocks one of the outlets.”