With summer approaching in the Northwest, layers of clothing slowly peel away, and thoughts turn to the water. Soon, local rivers, lakes and pools will start to fill with kids and families. I talked with Tony Gomez, our Violence and Injury Prevention Manager (and local water safety guru), to understand potential hazards on the water, and how to keep these experiences fun and safe.
Q: Every year, we hear local reports of tragic drownings in the news. How common are they, and where do most happen?
A: Last year, we had 15 unintentional drowning deaths in King County, and we see about 100 statewide per year. From when I started this work 30 years ago, drownings have dropped significantly, in large part because of good prevention work. But it’s still too many.
The majority of King County drowning deaths occur in open water, such as a river, lake or in the Puget Sound. Most of the other drowning deaths are in personal bathtubs, hot tubs, and private pools. There are typically a few each year in pools at motels, hotels, apartments and swim clubs, which our health department is responsible for regulating.
Q: What are the key factors that lead to drowning?
A: Not wearing a lifejacket while boating is huge. 88% of victims in boating-related drowning were not wearing lifejackets. Wearing a lifejacket while swimming or wading in open water where there is no lifeguard, like on a river or a lake, could also save many lives. Also, our water is cold here, and people underestimate how quickly it can sap their strength and ability to save themselves. Alcohol use, not being able to swim well or at all and those with seizure disorders all put people at high risk. And young adult males are also more likely to put themselves in danger that they can’t escape.
Q: We live in the Northwest, where it seems that everyone knows how to swim. Is that true?
A: Actually, no. Many people in our community don’t know how to swim at all, and cultural issues can play a part in this. (For a more in-depth look at the issue, listen to this KUOW story.)
Swim lessons for children are a proven success for drowning risk reduction. We promote events like April Pools Day to give more people the opportunity for exposure to the water in a safe and supportive environment, and to get connected to lessons.
Q: You mentioned that drownings have dropped over time. What have we done that’s worked?
It’s a combination of efforts that are making a difference. From our strong environmental health pool, spa and water park inspection program, which looks at fencing, lifeguards and other factors; to our local and state prevention efforts, such as lifejacket loaner programs and swim lesson promotion; to lifejacket and boating-under-the-influence (BUI) laws for marine vessels; to prohibiting swimming in the notoriously dangerous Lake Washington Ship Canal, it all adds up. We recently went for a four year stretch without a child dying by drowning in King County. That’s a remarkable achievement.
Q: April seems a little early for swimming. What’s the thinking behind April Pools Day?
A: Despite our success in reducing drownings, we still have more to do, as it remains a leading cause of death for children statewide. And this is the time of year when local drownings start to tick up. Fishing season opens next week, so more people are on the water. And early warm days brings visitors to rivers and lakes, some unaware of how cold and dangerous the water is.
So April Pools Day is a perfect time take advantage of free events to get lifejackets checked and fitted, get or refresh yourself on water safety tips, practice in a pool where the conditions are controlled and safe, get signed up for swim lessons and start to get into shape for the summer season. And have fun, of course!
Photo courtesy of Seattle Children’s Hospital