SI Vault
Pete Waldmeir
November 27, 1961
Pitting the landscape from coast to coast, half a million man-made swimming holes bring millionaires' fun to masses and some headaches to the nation's health authorities, who held a meeting on the problem in Detroit
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November 27, 1961

Statutes For Status In The Backyard

Pitting the landscape from coast to coast, half a million man-made swimming holes bring millionaires' fun to masses and some headaches to the nation's health authorities, who held a meeting on the problem in Detroit

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The U.S. digs status and, according to the gloomy views of some of the nation's more pessimistic health experts meeting in Detroit last week, it may be digging a few graves to achieve it. What specifically worried the health experts at the meeting of the U.S. Public Health Association was the vast proliferation of private backyard swimming pools across the nation.

Once restricted to the estates of the rich, pools now dent the nation's lawns from coast to coast, with California (113,350 pools) having the most. Two years after the end of World War II, there were only 11,000 pools in the entire country and only 2,500 that could be classed as private. Thirteen years later the number had swelled to 184,000. By the beginning of 1961 there were 310,000 pools in the country, 212,000 of which were located in private backyards. More than 60,000 have been built in the 11 months since then, and by 1970, says Walter Lyon, director of sanitary engineering in the Pennsylvania Health Department, there will be a million pools in the country. In addition to the pools that are dug into the ground on private estates, at country clubs, hotels, motels, community centers and village greens, there will be another half million perching precariously on top of it—so-called portable pools made of plastic, plywood or fiber glass.

"There are probably as many portable pools as there are permanent ones," says Lyon. "And quite frankly, I don't know if there is any way to control the health and safety problems created by either one." Until now local ordinances and statutes governing the construction, supervision and maintenance of public pools have failed to keep up with the rapid growth of the private-pool fad, and most localities have no laws at all to cover the private variety.

Lifeguard Mom

One of the main concerns of a special committee at the U.S. Public Health Association meetings was the preparation of some basic rules for private pools to match those already in effect for public bathing places. So far most of the regulations that exist to govern the use of swimming pools are directed solely at the danger of contamination and disease, but disease is only a part of the problem. "People do die from swimming in pools," says Walter Lyon, "but not always from contaminated water. They drown, too. Statistics from Pennsylvania, Illinois and Kansas show that approximately 5% of all drownings occur in pools. Since about 6,500 Americans drown each year, we can assume that 325 of them drown in swimming pools."

During the same period, Lyon said, approximately the same number die of dysentery contracted in improperly sanitized pools. "Yet," he said, "the health effort devoted to the prevention of infection and contamination is far greater than that devoted to drowning."

Public pools are usually protected by lifeguards (though not always in sufficient number), but in a private pool, it's Mom who must accept this responsibility. "She must be the cook, chauffeur and lifeguard. Can we make sure she knows how to save a drowning person and once saved how to resuscitate him?

"People don't realize quite fully the responsibility for human life they assume when they dig that backyard hole. Liability insurance isn't enough. What can it do for a child after he's dead or injured? They say fences are an answer, but these do little more than keep toddlers from falling in. For an older child, a fence is often a challenge.

"I really don't know where the answers will come from; we're nowhere near a solution in the residential pool area. All we can do is keep an eye on them and suggest measures to be taken when they start to look like public pools."

One city that thinks it knows some of the answers is Chicago, which appears to have gone overboard in taking precautions. Such stringent ordinances were passed in 1957 that only a handful of pools have been built since. According to Alexander Zimmerman, the sanitary engineer in charge of Chicago's pools, most people are completely ignorant of the dangers inherent in a large and unguarded hole in the ground—whether it is filled with water or not.

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