Protect your youngsters and yourself on and around the water


August 16, 1994|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Medical Tribune News Service

Water is an indispensable part of our lives. We literally cannot live without it; we're composed mostly of it. Now, with the sultry days of summer in full force, water in the form of recreation makes our lives a lot more enjoyable as well.

From sail-boating to water skiing, from municipal public pools to long-sequestered "private" swimming holes, summer is a time for fun and recreation focused on water.

Unfortunately, as people begin their annual flocking to favorite beaches, lakes and pools, the risk of tragedy increases dramatically. About 6,500 people drown in the United States each year, and children and adolescents are especially vulnerable.

From 1971 to 1988, nearly 46,000 people under age 19 died from unintentional, non-boat-related drownings. Drowning is the fourth-leading cause of accidental death, and for ages 5 to 24 is second only to death due to motor vehicles. Summer months are the deadliest: almost two-thirds of drownings occur between May and August.

For a better understanding of water risks and related preventive strategies, I consulted Susan Baker and Gordon Smith, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Injury Prevention Center.

Q: What special risks do swimming pools represent?

A: Pools present an increased risk to infants and especially toddlers. A recent study indicated that drowning rates for children younger than age 1 have increased, while those for toddlers have changed little over time, despite increased safety precautions. Clearly, better preventive measures need to be taken.

All pools should be completely surrounded with child-proof fencing. Children should never be allowed near a pool without being supervised by at least one adult. Water wings, inner tubes or other flotation devices should never be substituted for a life jacket or vest.

Pool drains also should be covered, and children should be encouraged to wear swim caps. Children have drowned when their hair became caught in the drains of Jacuzzis or pools. Children should be taught water and poolside safety at the earliest possible opportunity.

For infants, baby pools are even more dangerous than residential swimming pools. Infants also are most at risk around bathtubs, buckets and even toilets. Unflagging adult supervision is the key to preventing accidents.

Q: What about other bodies of water?

A: Natural bodies of fresh water such as rivers, lakes and quarries represent an increased risk to adolescents. In most cases, unlike pools and beaches, a lifeguard or adult supervision is not present. Youths should never swim alone; at least one "swimming buddy" always should be present.

In this age group, alcohol and swimming also can represent a lethal combination. Certainly, anyone planning a swim should not drink alcohol beforehand.

Q: Are there any precautions of which boaters should be especially aware?

A: All boaters should know and adhere to U.S. Coast Guard boating regulations. The boat's operator, or better yet, all passengers, should avoid the use of alcohol. Everyone, including swimmers, should wear a life jacket at all times. An interesting fact is that drowning among water skiers is relatively unusual, probably due to the common practice of wearing life belts.

Another safety precaution is to wear especially visible swimwear, perhaps even phosphorescent material. Drownings often occur when a victim rapidly disappears from view, and cannot be located under water.

Q: How can I be prepared for accidents?

A: The best thing you can do is learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation. If CPR is administered immediately, the chance of survival is much greater than if you wait for a rescue squad. If you have a pool at home or spend a lot of time engaging in water activities, knowing CPR is a must.

The American Red Cross regularly offers CPR courses, as well as swimming programs starting for children as young as 6 months old. Check your local chapter for details and course scheduling.

Dr. Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is founding director of its Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.

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