Disparities in Drowning: Swimming a Joy for Some, Deadly for Others

June 17, 2014

One of my "pool rats" at a
summer swim meet

For many children in the US, summertime means fun and play in and around water. I confess that I was a child “pool rat.” This term is defined as “lucky child who spends most hours of most days of summer in or near a pool.” My early experience gave me a love of swimming that I took with me into club and collegiate competition and, more recently, into amateur triathlons. As a teen, I lifeguarded and taught the next generation of pool rats. Today when I see any body of water, my blood pressure goes down and my happiness goes up.

That is why recent CDC statistics about drowning among young people are so distressing. Nearly 4,000 Americans die from drowning each year. A recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report details the racial/ethnic disparities seen in fatal unintentional drowning among people under the age of 29 years. These disparities should be the target of family/school/community/ and policy interventions.

The MMWR analysis determined population-based rates of drowning by looking at 12 years of combined mortality data (1999-2010) across five different racial/ethnic categories, five settings (bathtub, pool, natural water, boating, other/unspecified) and by age. To sum up, infants (<1 year) most commonly drowned in bathtubs, children ages 1-4 and 5-9 years most commonly drowned in pools, and older age groups most commonly drowned in natural water settings. Among all settings, drowning rates for American Indians/Alaska Native children were twice the rate for white children. Rates for black children were 1.4 times higher than those for white or Hispanic children at every age from 5 to 18 years and especially so at age 10. 

Disparities were greatest in swimming pool deaths, where the rates for black children ages 5-19 years were 5.5 times higher than those for white children in the same age group. Between the ages of 11-12, black children drowned in pools at 10 times the rate of white children.

Study authors describe the various drowning prevention strategies: fencing/barriers, life jackets, lifeguards, teaching basic swimming skills and bystander cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Teaching basic swimming skills (i.e. controlled breathing, floating and traversing a distance) can be beneficial across all settings. Other research demonstrates many children and adults, especially blacks, report limited swimming skills.

Generation Swim

Since many children learn how to swim from their parents, swimming skill is handed down from one generation to the next. Conversely, if parents do not know how to swim or are afraid of the water, then lack of swimming skill is also passed to the next generation. The USA Swimming Association reports that if a parent does not know how to swim, then there is only a 13 percent  chance that his or her children will learn to swim. More research is needed to understand the barriers that families face.

Swimming is a lifesaving skill for a child that goes beyond recreational activity. Participation in swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent for children ages 1 to 4 years. If we could encourage parents and those that support at-risk youth to facilitate swimming instruction to an entire generation, we could break the cycle.  They can connect with their local chapter of the American Red Cross or their local YMCA, as well as the USA Swimming Association Make a Splash, to create lifesaving partnerships.

Today, I am the proud aunt of five pool rats that love playing in pool, lake, and ocean water. Participation on summer swim teams keeps them busy and fit. Pass the joy and skill of swimming to the next generation.

Consider This Policy Idea

Did you know that 71 percent of the earth's surface is covered by water? You can argue that those charged with equipping kids to survive in the world, should consider being able to swim as a basic survival skill. I went to a university that required you to pass a swimming test before you could graduate. If needed, students took swimming as a gym class so they could pass the test. This concept could be written into primary or secondary school policy. Perhaps government grants could support collaboration between public school districts and the previously mentioned providers of swimming instruction.