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North Ga. Environmental Health Director discusses swimming pool safety

Story and Cartoon By Raymond King - Director of Environmental Health for the N. Ga. Health District

Recently an 8-year-old girl swimming in a Doraville apartment complex pool had her arm trapped in a vacuum drain.  Her brother kept her afloat in the water, while her mother called 911. Crews worked for about three hours -- first, lowering the water level in the pool, then chipping away at the concrete pool siding.                                     

The girl was taken to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston to have the pipe removed from her arm. The girl is expected to make a full recovery but many children die needlessly each year in private and public pools because simple safety equipment and health precautions are not taken.

You may be surprised to learn that the swimming pool serving your residential development or apartment complex is not inspected by any authority for health and safety.

There are statewide health and safety regulations for most public pools, but the rules do not include subdivision or apartment pools.  In our area of north Georgia, only the Cherokee County Board of Health has adopted rules covering private subdivision and apartment pools. There may be a contract with a private company to insure properly disinfected water but that may be the limit of the company's responsibility. The recycling rate through the filter and disinfection unit may be inadequate because the pool is of a design for private homes, not public use.

Transmission of diseases is easy in swimming pools if filtration and disinfection rates are inadequate. For example, a child in ordinary diapers may swim and transmit viruses or bacteria throughout the pool.

In June of 1998, Georgia health officials were notified that a number of children had become ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections and were hospitalized in Atlanta-area hospitals.  Public health investigators interviewed victims’ families and learned that all had become ill after visiting in a public swimming park.  Twenty-six culture-confirmed E. coli 0157:H7 cases were identified, and while health officials hypothesized that the outbreak was considerably larger, the outbreak size was never known due to under-reporting of illnesses.                         

Forty percent of children under five years of age were diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome (kidney damage) and a number were hospitalized. Low chlorine levels in the suspect pools were detected on all days of exposure, and it was never determined whether one of the pools had chlorine in it at the time when the exposures occurred.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself before letting your family swim in your neighborhood pool:

• Is the water always clear and properly disinfected?

• Are chlorine and pH levels checked at least twice a day and more often during very sunny  weather and heavy use? Sunlight and heavy bather loads can degrade chlorine levels quickly. Appearance of algae anywhere in the pool is an indicator that chlorine levels are not being maintained.

- Are NO DIVING signs posted in the shallow end of the pool? (some pools are too shallow for any diving at all.)

• Do drain covers and vacuum systems comply with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act? This is extremely important - see below.

• Are disinfectants such as chlorine kept in a locked room?

• Is there a phone at the pool for calling 911 in case of an emergency?

• Do you see any electrical hazards such as exposed wiring?

• Are decks and equipment surrounding the pool in good repair?

• Are there depth markers four inches high painted on the deck and on the pool wall?

• Is there life-saving equipment such as a 12' pole with a body hook and a throwing rope with attached ring buoy?

• Are the restrooms and dressing areas kept clean, disinfected, and supplied with soap and paper towels?

• Are safety warnings and pool rules clearly posted on a large sign (e.g., NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY, no children without an adult present, requirements for swim diapers, etc.)

• If there is a water slide, is a lifeguard or responsible attendant on duty at all times?  Is the design of the slide dangerous?

• Is the pool enclosed in a fence?  Is there a self-closing gate with a latch at least four feet high to prevent entrance by smaller children?

The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act  takes its name from Virginia Graeme Baker, a young girl who drowned after she was trapped under water by the powerful suction from a hot tub drain. Efforts by her mother to pull Graeme from the drain proved unsuccessful. Two men who eventually freed Graeme from the spa pulled so hard that the drain cover broke from the force. Graeme died from drowning, but the real cause of her death was suction entrapment due to a faulty drain cover.

She was the daughter of Nancy and James Baker IV, the son of former Secretary of State James Baker III. A member of her community swim and diving team, Graeme was able to swim without assistance since she was 3 years old.

After her tragic death, her mother, Nancy Baker, worked tirelessly to advocate for pool and spa safety. Mrs. Baker, her family and Safe Kids Worldwide actively lobbied Congress to win support for a law to require anti-entrapment drain covers and other safety devices, as needed.                         The statute sponsored was signed into law by the President in December 2007.  To carry out the requirements of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act, a national public education campaign was launched to raise public awareness about drowning and entrapment prevention, support industry compliance with the Act’s requirements, and improve safety at the nation’s pools and spas.

If you have a pool at home, find out if all of your drains and vacuum lines comply with this Act.  Children have been drowned and even eviscerated by pool drains and vacuum lines.  Unfortunately the Graeme Act does not require compliance from private pools and spas.

There are chemical as well as physical dangers in all pools. I recall inspecting a Boy Scout camp where gas chlorine was used to disinfect a very old swimming pool. A chlorine gas leak killed every tree, piece of grass and all other living things within 200 feet of the pool.

Fortunately no one was at the camp at the time. Chlorine is a strong oxidizer. It must be handled and stored safely in any form (solid, liquid, gas).

Gas chlorine is so dangerous that it is normally not used as a swimming pool disinfectant any longer.


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