In a remarkable reversal, a 3-2 majority of the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted today to reinterpret the phrase “unblockable drain” under the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act (VGB Act) to no longer permit the use of unblockable drain covers to protect against entrapment in public pools using single drain systems. As a result, cash strapped schools, municipalities, community pool organizations and others will be required to install an expensive and less protective back-up system.
The Commission’s original interpretation was based on the recommendation by its career technical experts that a $40 unblockable drain cover provides better protection against entrapment and drowning than does a $1000 – the least expensive and therefore most popular – back-up device, a safety vacuum release system (SVRS). According to Commission staff, unblockable drain covers prevent an entrapment before it happens, whereas an SVRS kicks in 4 seconds after a drain is blocked. As a result, a child playing in a pool without an unblockable drain cover can be eviscerated, or inextricably trapped by hair or a limb and drown before the SVRS turns off the pump. Even the SVRS manufacturer acknowledges this limitation in its product.
Commission staff has not changed its position that unblockable drain covers are safer than an SVRS, and did not recommend any change to the Commission’s interpretation. Since the Commission’s original interpretation, there have been no entrapment incidents that raise any concerns about the effectiveness of unblockable drain covers. In addition, despite receiving extensive public comment on the question before issuing its original interpretation, the Commission majority refused to hold any public hearing or solicit any public input on its reinterpretation.
The sole reason for the Commission’s decision is that a single Commissioner – Bob Adler – has changed his “legal interpretation” of the VGB Act. He claims to have done so based on two meetings with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who sponsored the legislation. But the legislation was co-written by Vac-Alert Industries President Paul Pennington, whose company manufacturers an SVRS and will profit richly from the new mandate to use a back-up system.
Vac-Alert hits the jackpot, but what of the losses suffered by the public? For those pools that can afford it, thousands of dollars in unnecessary equipment will be purchased at taxpayer expense. But for those localities that don’t have the resources, pools will be opened late or closed permanently, potentially adding to nationwide drowning statistics by reducing the availability of swimming lessons. Finally, families will again be exposed to the risk of drain entrapment drowning and evisceration, which in the cruelest of ironies, was the cause of death of Virginia Graeme Baker, after whom the VGB Act was named.
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