Hundreds of children risk injury and drowning every summer in swimming pools—and what many people don’t realize is those small, plastic backyard pools pose the greatest danger.
Consumer watch groups say while shallow, inflatable pools are just as risky as large built-in pools, the safety guidelines for these popular pools are sparse.
In January, Consumer Reports warned parents about inflatable pools in an online alert titled "Surprise hazards: Eight products NOT to buy for kids."
"These pools, which start at around $50, are too big to dump the water out of every day, and too inexpensive for most people to consider installing a fence," the report noted. "So they sit unattended in the backyard, a drowning hazard."
Any pool is dangerous for children—about 250 children under age 5 drown in swimming pools every year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. And in 2004, an estimated 2,300 children were treated for injuries after being submerged in a pool.
(The commission is expected to release more current numbers later this month.)
While only 11 of those deaths since 2001 have been attributed to small backyard pools, experts suspect the number is higher since not every drowning report lists the type of pool.
The commission as well as Safe Kids Worldwide, a Washington D.C.-based group working to prevent accidental childhood deaths, recommends small inflatable pools be held to the same safety standards as permanent pools, including requiring protective fencing.
Yet, local governments provide little or no oversight for small swimming pools and manufacturers are not yet held to any safety standards.
Chicago safety regulations apply only to pools deeper than five feet. The city building code requires these pools be enclosed on all sides by a five-foot fence with a self-latching gate. No city department offers guidelines on inflatable pools, says Bill McCaffrey, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Consumer Services.
ASTM International, a voluntary safety standards organization, is developing safety recommendations to address the issue of drowning in portable pools.
Alan Korn, director of public policy for Safe Kids, says he believes most manufacturers and retailers would adhere to the guidelines ASTM sets. Still, the burden falls on parents once the pool is up and in the back yard.
"Best practice is to make sure you’re using these pools in fenced-in areas with self-locking gates so young children aren’t getting in there without constant adult supervision," Korn says.
Drowning happens quickly—and there is no warning. The best prevention is vigilance.
"It doesn’t happen like in the movies," Korn says. "A child who’s not actively supervised goes under and that’s the last you hear of them. They call it the silent death."
Barrett Newkirk, Medill News Service