Recent decisions by the Consumer Product Safety Commission regarding the VGB Act have garnered some very public disagreement.
In February, CPSC’s five commissioners voted on the
definition of unblockable drains. The agency also outlined the
minimum legislative requirements to be imposed on states trying to
receive the grant money allotted for the law.
To be considered unblockable, a drain must be large enough so
that it does not become blocked when covered by the 18-by-23-inch
element used in testing. Furthermore, flow around the blocking
element must fall within a given value. CPSC also decided that a
drain is unblockable if it has an adequately sized cover, even if
the sump is smaller.
But that definition has provoked public protest by certain
The balloting itself was by no means unanimous: the vote was 3 to
2, with CPSC Chairwoman Inez Tennenbaum being one of the
Those who disagree with the decision are concerned about a
hazard that may occur if an unblockable-sized drain cover comes off
and exposes a smaller sump. Pools with unblockable drains are not
required to have a second drain or backup system.
Public dissenters include two mothers who lost children to
entrapment — Nancy Baker, the mother of Virginia Graeme
Baker, for whom the law is named, and Karen Cohn, mother of Zachary
Archer Cohn, a 6-year-old Connecticut boy whose entrapment death
led to the first-ever arrest of a pool builder in association with
a drowning-related incident.
Baker and Cohn have asked CPSC to reconsider its decision.
“Those who rendered this decision are operating under the
assumption that drains in pools and spas are continuously and
accurately installed and maintained,” they stated in a letter
addressed to Tennenbaum. “We personally know this is not the
case. Zachary Cohn lost his life because the drain cover failed,
and had there been a secondary layer of protection, this precious
child would be living today.”
The Pool Safety Council, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy
group, also went public with its disapproval, issuing a press
release titled, “Consumer Product Safety Commission Reverses
Federal Law, Puts Swimmers in Grave Danger.”
PSC objects to allowing unblockable drains to serve as the only
means for preventing entrapment, saying that VGB called for layers
The release contained perhaps the most accusatory language that
PSC has issued against the pool and spa industry in such a public
“Industry advocates, more interested in financial gain
than swimmer safety, got exactly what they wanted,” stated
PSC spokesman John Proctor in the document.
The group criticized CPSC as well. “The announcement
brings into question the influence representatives of the pool
industry have in CPSC’s decision-making process,” the
press release continued. Pool Safety Council did not return
requests for additional comment.
At least one commissioner was feeling frustrated with the issue.
On her ballot, she indirectly referred to a specific entity that
apparently stated its disagreement with the language before it came
“Certain purveyors of backup systems have made it known
that they will challenge in court any decision like the one made
today approving unblockable drain covers,” said Anne M.
Northup. “I do not believe that such a threat — or,
indeed, any threatened lawsuit by a group with a vested interest in
a Commission decision (financial or otherwise) — should ever
influence the Commission’s decision process one way or the
other. Taking such threats into account would bias the
Commission’s thinking toward those special interests most
willing to sue (such as self-styled consumer groups or, as here, an
industry group invested in promoting a particular
These concerns were addressed in a statement by Commissioner
Robert Adler, who said that only compliant drain covers can prevent
all five types of entrapment, and he believes the drain-cover
standard addresses proper attachment.
He said his decision might have been different if secondary
anti-entrapment systems were known to prevent all five kinds of
entrapment. But, he added, these backup systems cannot prevent
evisceration or hair entrapment.
“If a drain cover were to come off, a pool or spa owner
might choose not to worry because he or she had a secondary
anti-entrapment system,” Adler said. “Thus, one might
be lulled into thinking that protections exist that really do
There are some who accept the concept that a drain is
unblockable on the merits of its cover, and they think the language
was not thorough enough.
Unblockable drains have been used in large waterparks for some
time, said David Stingl, founding partner of Stingl
Products, LLC, in Sterling, Va. But in those settings they
usually measured 6-by-8 feet. Applying this concept on a smaller
scale is fairly new, he said.
Stingl believes more directions are necessary to dictate how to
install these drains so they don’t become loose, considering
that an unblockable drain is being trusted to prevent entrapment on
its own, without a second drain or backup device.
“As it’s written right now, you could take a cover,
screw it down into the two screw holes in an 8-inch sump and it
would pass,” Stingl said. “But you have this huge cover
and two little screws down into an 8-inch sump. What’s
holding the rest of it down? Somebody can stick their fingers right
under it and break it in half.”
Additionally, Stingl would like to see that unblockable drains
be tested to ensure that they prevent body entrapment and hair
“The person who is blocking the element is lying on the
drain cover or, if it’s wall-mounted, they’re up
against it,” he said.
“What are the odds of their hair coming in contact with
the cover that they’re blocking? Extremely good.”
The committee writing IAPMO/APSP-16 — the drain cover
standard meant to replace A112.19.8 — is currently discussing
Stingl wishes CPSC would wait for the IAPMO/APSP committee to
hash out its language and use that as a reference. However, nearly
11/2 years after the deadline for commercial pools to comply with
VGB, the agency was under the gun.
Both the unblockable-drain definition and state grant
requirements are moving through final channels and are expected to
be published in April.