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What's the Problem?

In 1997, 4,051 people drowned in the United States, including 964 children under age 15. Drowning is the second leading cause of injury death (after motor vehicle crashes) among children 1-14 years old. A person who lives after nearly drowning may suffer brain damage.

Who's at Risk?

Children and young adults: Drowning rates are highest mainly for children under 5 years of age and persons 15-24 years of age. How children drown tends to vary by age. For example, children under age one most often drown in bathtubs, buckets, and toilets. Children 1-4 most often drown in swimming pools, hot tubs, and spas. Children aged 5-14 typically drown in swimming pools and open water, such as lakes and rivers.

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Males: In 1997, drowning rates were at least three times greater for males than for females for almost every age group.

Blacks: In 1997, the overall age-adjusted drowning rate for blacks was 42% higher than that for whites. Black children between 5 and 19 drowned more than twice as often as white children of the same age.

In addition, alcohol use can increase the risk of drowning. Alcohol use was involved in 25-50% of adolescent and adult deaths associated with water recreation. Alcohol is a major contributing factor in nearly half of all drownings among adolescent boys.

Can It Be Prevented?

Definitely, and especially when: children are closely supervised around water; adults don't drink while supervising children or before swimming, boating, or water skiing; everyone learns to swim; more people learn CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation); and when four-sided fencing is installed around a swimming pool.

However, many people are not fully aware of certain risk factors that contribute to drowning. For example, adults often expect small children to splash and show obvious signs of distress when they are having trouble in the water. However, drowning children rarely are able to call for help or wave their arms, and thus usually drown silently.

Likewise, many people may not know that alcohol use increases the risk of drowning. Alcohol can reduce body temperature and affect vision, balance, and movement. Therefore, alcohol is a potent risk factor for swimmers, boat operators, and passengers, who can fall overboard while intoxicated.

Tips for Scripts

  • INFORM viewers that alcohol use can increase the risk of drowning. This message is particularly important for adolescent males and their parents.
  • EDUCATE viewers about the risk of children getting into distress quickly and quietly in the water. Childhood drownings and near-drownings often occur when a child is left alone, even for a few seconds. Most children who drown in pools were last seen inside the home, had been out of sight less than five minutes, and were in the care of one or both parents at the time.
  • REMIND viewers of the importance of wearing life vests on boats.
  • ENCOURAGE parents to closely supervise young children as they bathe.
  • EDUCATE viewers about the effectiveness of four-sided fencing around a swimming pool as a prevention method.

Case Examples

  1. Parents with two young children, 4-year old Jim and 3-year old Amy, visit friends who have an in-ground pool in their back yard. The friends' three children are already in the water, and Jim and Amy jump in and start playing with the others. The two fathers drink beer and fire up the grill. Their backs are to the nearby pool, but they occasionally glance over at the kids. The two mothers head inside the house to prepare the rest of the meal, asking the men to keep an eye on the kids. Tired of the game, Jim climbs out of the water, walks over to the pool's deeper end, and jumps in. Only Amy notices him do this, and sees that he does not come back up, but does not really understand that this is serious. After a moment, she walks over to her dad, tugs on his pants, and says softly, "Jim is under."
  2. Six college students head to the beach for an afternoon of eating, drinking, swimming, and body surfing. Four drink beer and wine, and the two others drink soda and water. Late in the day, one guy who has had a couple of beers says it's time to get back out there in the waves. One of the young women who has not been drinking catches up with him as he's wading into the water. "Hang on, Dan. You've been drinking. No more swimming for you, sweetie." "No way," he says. "I've been swimming at this beach since I was a kid. I've only had a couple beers, I'm good." The young woman says, "No, buddy. My cousin Robert was out here two years ago, and he spent the day partying just like we have. The water was calm, and they all decided to go for a last swim. Robert floated out away from the others, then disappeared. He was a great swimmer, he taught me to swim. But he'd had about as much to drink as you. The jerk threw up, and he swallowed a lot of water, and he drowned. You can't get out there if you've been drinking."
  • Page last reviewed: February 8, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 8, 2011
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