Part 1 of 2 part series
By Erika Winston
With the summer heat in full swing, stuff the swimming pool is a favorite destination for cooling off and having fun. From inflatable backyard pools and community water parks to lakes and beaches, troche children all over Virginia spend their days splashing in the water. Unfortunately, order this staple of the summer months can quickly turn deadly when pool goers are not properly trained in swimming and water safety. Every day, approximately ten unintentional drownings occur within the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). This statistic exemplifies the seriousness of the issue, which disproportionately affects African Americans. It is not just important for parents to understand the importance of water safety and prevention. It’s a matter of life and death.
The CDC offers the following statistics about drowning instances within the United States:
- Children under the age of 14-years-old, account for 20% of all drowning victims.
- For each child who dies from a water related incident, five additional children visit emergency rooms for water injuries.
- The highest level of drowning rates occurs among children between the ages of one and four-years-old.
- Drowning ranks fifth in the leading causes of unintentional deaths.
- Nonfatal drowning accidents can result in long-term disabilities for the victim, including various levels of brain damage.
Contributing Factors to African American Drowning Risks
The largest contributing factor to the prevalence of drowning is the inability to swim. About a third of all adults are not able to swim 24 yards. Though the percentage of non-swimmers significantly increases among African American adults, the greatest disparities are seen among children between the ages of 5 and 14-years old. The number of fatal drownings is three times higher among African Americans in this age group than for white children. When all water sources are considered, swimming pools are the most common location for African American drowning incidents. Among children aged 11 to 12-years-old, the CDC places swimming pool drowning rates at 10 times higher than their white counterparts.
Studies into these disparities have found cultural, historical and financial reasons behind this disturbing trend. Jeff Wiltse is the author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, which examines the history of municipal swimming pools in America. According to Wiltse, the racial contention of the Civil Rights movement greatly limited access to water sources for African Americans. Beaches and pools were segregated, virtually eliminating swimming as a recreational activity for Black communities. These limitations created a culture of fear, which led to a widespread belief that water safety and swimming lessons were unimportant. This way of thinking was passed down from generation to generation within African American families. According to the CDC, most children who cannot swim have parents who cannot swim.
Another contribution to these disparities is the perceived financial barrier to water related activities. For decades, swimming was perceived as an elitist activity within the African American community. Traditionally, access to water facilities was expensive. Black families generally could not afford to have swimming pools in their back yards and were kept out of public swimming facilities. Even as access expanded, the old perceptions unfortunately remained. According to Wiltse, while swimming lessons were a staple of the white household, the activity never received the same level of importance with African American households.
The Importance of Water Safety
While increased swimming pool access would seemingly strengthen prevention efforts, it has ironically done the opposite by contributing to drowning rates among Black children. Pools have become increasingly accessible and affordable over the last 20 years. Local community centers and public swimming pools are available in many neighborhoods, including those in lower income areas. The emergence of the Black middle class brought swimming pools right into the backyards of many African American families. While these developments have created great opportunities, they have also resulted in more drowning injuries due to a lack of water safety measures.
Water safety practices must accompany any size swimming pool. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child can drown in as little as one inch of water. Therefore, even in kiddie pools, children are at risk of drowning injuries and fatalities. Lack of supervision is a major risk factor for childhood drownings. These incidents can happen quickly, even in the presence of adults. For this reason, experts advise that children should always be within arms length of an adult when playing in any type of pool. This is referred to as “touch supervision.”
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) advises that an adult “water watcher” be assigned for supervision. This person should not be engaged in any activity that would distract him or her from the activities of the child or children. Drownings can happen very quietly, so children should be constantly watched. According to the VDH, a proper “water watcher” should:
- Know the location of the child or children at all times
- Be able to swim
- Know Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation
- Know what steps to take in case of emergency
- Understand that the lifeguard is not the supervisor
- Ensure that another “water watcher” is on duty before taking a break
Another vital aspect of water safety is the limitation of access to unattended water sources. Barriers significantly reduce drowning risks, by keeping young children out of unattended pools. According to the VDH, up to 90% of child drowning accidents could be prevented with the use of proper fencing around pools. It is the responsibility of the pool owner to create “layers of protection” that keep children away from unattended pools. Some of the suggested safety features include:
- A five-foot barrier that cannot be climbed. The fence openings should be less than four inches wide to keep children from squeezing through the openings.
- The area around the fence must be free from items that children can use to climb the fence, ie. Lawn chairs, large toys, etc.
- The gate on the pool fence should be self-latching, as well as self-locking.
- All doors and windows providing access to the pool must be locked at all times. Alarms on these openings provide even more protection against drownings.
- Keep toys and floats out of unattended pools. These items attract the attention of children.
Water safety is essential to the safety of all children. By instituting some simple measures, parents can significantly decrease the number of drowning accidents and fatalities.
Next week: Swimming resources for Richmond kids