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Drain cover recall may close public pools nationwide

A Baltimore city official said Friday that city pools will not be affected by the recall announced Thursday of drain covers that can fail to protect swimmers from entrapment and drowning. Thousands of public and private pools elsewhere across the country may have to be retrofitted with new safety equipment.

In announcing the recall of 1 million pool and spa drain covers, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission declared that public pools with the faulty equipment should remain shut until the problem is fixed. The federal agency said it was deploying recall inspectors who have the authority to close 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 CPSC.

It is unclear how many Maryland public pools — if any — will be affected by the recall.

Gwendolyn Chambers, media and public relations manager at Baltimore City Dept of Recreation & Parks, said Friday, "Our pools do not use any of the products listed in the recall."

American Pool Enterprises said none of the 400 pools it manages in Maryland were affected.

A 2007 federal law, named after a 7-year-old girl who died in a spa, requires public pools and spas to install anti-entrapment drain covers. All of the recalled covers were labeled as being compliant, so pool owners thought they were protected from the hazard.

But a Tribune investigation in February revealed that some of those newer drain covers had undergone flawed safety evaluations and failed subsequent, more stringent tests. Without proper covers, pool and spa drains can act like supercharged vacuum cleaners, trapping 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 chore to discern model numbers.

Some pools and spas at YMCAs across the country might be affected and could be temporarily closed though most will remain open, said Kevin Dietz, a spokesman for YMCA of the USA. Some municipalities said their covers are not affected by the recall.

Under the recall, pools that rely on one drain and a back-up safety system that shuts off a pool pump when it senses a vacuum will have to replace recalled drain covers, while the same types of pools with more than one drain but no back-up safety system won't have to replace them.

All kiddie pools, wading pools and spas — regardless of the number of drains — must shut down if they have recalled covers, and they cannot reopen until the covers are replaced or fixed.

To Paul Pennington, founder of the Pool Safety Council, excluding the deeper, multiple-drain swimming pools "makes no sense" because swimmers can still get trapped underwater. 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 is confusing.

"Recalls are usually more straightforward: 'Here's a problem. It's dangerous. Here's how to fix it.' This is full of, 'Yes, but you don't have to in this case or that case,'" she said.

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 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.

The CEO of American Pool Enterprises Inc., which has offices in Owings Mills, said many in the industry were previously alerted to the recall.

Mitchell Friedlander, the American Pool CEO, said Thursday that "we were ahead of it. We are comfortable, we are safe," he said of the 1,500 company-managed pools, including about 400 in Maryland. An email was sent internally among staff previously, he said, causing about a dozen of the company's pools in the Atlanta area to receive new covers.

He said articles about the potential dangers of drain covers had circulated in the industry, including an April issue of Pool & Spa News. "It's been front and center for a period of time," he said. But he added that the recall "is going to catch some people [by surprise], especially those individual owners."

A major hurdle for federal regulators was the recognition that, while many drain covers are not expensive, hiring a 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 reinstallation. Under the recall, the labor is covered if 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 dispatched a team to witness 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, though the agency declined to name them. The agency has persuaded 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.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson and Tribune reporters Ellen Gabler and Jared Hopkins contributed to this article.

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