Question of the Week

June 6, 2005


In some parts of the country, the season of water sports and outdoor activities is just beginning. In some regions, the season lasts all year. Wherever you are, summer vacation often means more time to enjoy the water and water related activities.

Earlier this spring:
"A U.S. Coast Guard crew in Humboldt County took part in a daring sea rescue, plucking two boogie boarders from an onslaught of rough waves off Samoa Beach. Two teenage boys were found clinging to a single boogie board for flotation at about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday after a strong riptide dragged them away from shore. A helicopter rescue swimmer was lowered from a helicopter and was able to get a strap around the first boy, and quickly hoisted him aboard. The second boy lost his grip on the boogie board and had to be snatched from the powerful waves by hand. 'They were physically exhausted, and extremely grateful when we arrived to save them,' said Coast Guard Petty Officer Dave Beacham."

Whether your friends are going out and inviting you to try something new, or it is an activity with which you have years of experience, it is important to know what you are getting yourself into given the conditions on any given day.

"Be in shape for what you intend to do. Swimming is an excellent form of exercise, but don't attempt more than your physical condition easily allows. Cold water, currents and other conditions on the open water require more energy than does swimming in a pool. If you're not in shape, you might have a hard time making it back to shore. As with any activity that you're not doing regularly, start out slowly. ..."

Even if you are in shape, it is important to know what to do if conditions get out of control. One example:

"Don't panic if you get caught in a strong current. Trying to swim directly toward shore won't help. You probably won't make any progress against the current, and you'll just tire yourself out. Instead, swim in a line parallel to the shore. When you feel the current relax, you can swim toward shore."

Do you live further inland? "[C]onditions on the open water require more energy than does swimming in a pool," but there are still precautions that can be taken when enjoying time by the pool.

"When it comes to backyard swimming pools, [Marie M. Lozon, M.D., of the University of Michigan Health System] thinks lessons are a great idea. But they are not a 'panacea' because children still may harm themselves if they are playing carelessly in the water. She also warns of the problem of teens drinking alcohol while partying at a lake or pool. 'That's where we see a lot of judgment errors and drownings as a result of teens being intoxicated, falling in and drowning and unable to assist themselves,' she says. 'You can't always monitor them 24 hours a day, but I think everybody should talk to their teen about the impairment of judgment that occurs when one uses alcohol, especially when one is going to be near a water activity.'"

Whether you are enjoying time with your friends, or you are responsible for younger children near the water, it is important to make sure that your judgment is at its best. Some statistics to keep in mind:

"Alcohol use is involved in about 25% to 50% of adolescent and adult deaths associated with water recreation. It is a major contributing factor in up to 50% of drownings among adolescent boys."

"Most drownings occur when the victim is unconscious or exhausted and unable to access air. This may be, for example, a swimmer who experiences a heart attack while in the ocean, exhaustion and coma due to hypothermia after breaking through the surface of a frozen lake, or merely a drunk person passing out in a small puddle. (PCP users frequently lose their sense of direction as well, and drowning is a major cause of death for them.) A few centimeters of water are sufficient for drowning if the victim lies face down on the water."

And whether or not your judgment is impaired, it is important to note that:

"Nearly three-quarters of boating-related deaths were due to drowning; 89% of people who drowned were not wearing personal flotation devices."

While some risks seem obvious, and precautions can be easily taken to improve the safety in such situations, other times there can be hidden risks.

"The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has reports incidents including deaths in which people's hair was sucked into the suction fitting drain of a spa, hot tub, or whirlpool bathtub, causing the victims' heads to be held under water. The suction from drain outlets is strong enough to cause entrapment of hair or body parts, and drowning. Most accidents with drain outlets involve people with hair that is shoulder-length or longer. Hair entrapment occurs when a bather's hair becomes entangled in a suction fitting drain cover as the water and hair are drawn powerfully through the drain. In several incidents, children were playing a 'hold your breath the longest' game, leaning forward in the water and permitting their long hair to be sucked into the drain. ..."

Are your friends asking you to do something that you don't think is safe? Are the younger children around you playing a game that you think could be potentially dangerous? What about the specific threat caused by "suction from drain outlets"?

"Wear a bathing cap or pin hair up if you have long hair. Never allow a child to play in a way that could permit the child's hair to come near the drain cover. Always supervise children around a spa, hot tub, whirlpool bathtub, wading pool, or swimming pool."

Are you responsible for younger children this summer? Will you be watching them when there is even a small amount of water? Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death (after car accidents) for children younger than 14 years. It's the number-one cause of unintentional injury-related deaths for kids ages 1 to 4.
* Nearly 1,000 children die every year by drowning.
* Most drownings involving children ages 1-4 occur in home swimming pools.
* Drowning often happens quickly and quietly - there is little noise to alert parents that the child is in danger.
* The majority of young children who drowned were last seen in the home, were in the care of one or both parents at the time of drowning, and had been out of sight for less than 5 minutes.

With precautions in place, accidents still happen -- even among those who are trained as rescuers. In one case, an alert teen saved their lives.

"An Annapolis teenager is being hailed as a hero in California after helping to rescue two firefighters. Alex Smith-Jones is attending college in Stockton, Calif. He was at water polo practice when he noticed that a firefighter using the pool for a training exercise was in trouble at the bottom of the pool. Alex and his teammates helped pull him and another firefighter to safety."§ionId=46

Questions of the Week:
What circumstances will bring you near the water this summer? (Are you living or vacationing near oceans? lakes? swimming pools? hot tubs? wading pools? others?) What are different precautions for different bodies of water? What precautions are the same? What safety information should you have in mind when it is just you and your friends? How can you be safe and still have fun? What can you do and/or say when "everyone" is doing something that makes uncomfortable, or that you think is unsafe? What additional safety precautions should you take when you are around small children? What additional knowledge should you have? What can you do and/or say when children you are with are doing something that you think is unsafe? Would you know what to do if there was a water emergency involving one of your friends, or a child in your care?

For more information about swimming and water safety courses in your area, visit:

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
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I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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