Health News Digest

July 24, 2006

Safety Tips for That Backyard Swimming Poolbackyard swimming pool

By  Michael D. Shaw

As we approach the dog days of summer, millions of us will undoubtedly seek relief in a backyard oasis of fun and comfort: the alluring swimming pool. These fashionably designed concrete and tiled centers of relaxation date back to ancient times, drawing on mankind’s primordial relationship with water.

But, if water is the source of life, it can surely also take it away. Indeed, few situations are as tragic as the all-too-frequent fatalities, to say nothing of injuries, that can occur around the family pool. This is hardly news, of course, and most of us are aware of the annual safety warnings issued by various government agencies. Perhaps all these warnings become so much white noise, since the carnage continues year after year.

Famed University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, coauthor of “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side to Everything,” analyzed child deaths from residential swimming pools and guns in the home. He found that one child under 10 drowns annually for every 11,000 pools. By comparison, one child under 10 each year is killed by a gun for every 1 million guns, according to his research.

Thus, incredible as it may sound, when at home, a young child is 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident than by gunplay!

This situation exists, in part, because most people view swimming pools as inherently harmless, while a handgun—from its notorious history to its menacing appearance—has a scary and very negative connotation. But the danger is undeniable. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children younger than five in a warm weather state like Arizona, and the second-leading cause of injury-related death nationally among children younger than 15.

Few people realize that it takes only thirty seconds for a child to drown. Infants can drown in water as shallow as a few inches. Making it all the more insidious, child drownings are typically silent.

According to Professor Levitt:

“In 1997 alone, 742 children under the age of 10 drowned in the United States last year alone. Approximately 550 of those drownings—about 75 percent of the total—occurred in residential swimming pools.”

It must be emphasized that many of these accidents are preventable. The Consumer Products Safety Commission has some excellent resources on swimming pool safety, which, regrettably, too many people ignore. Suggestions include erecting fences that entirely surround the pool, putting locks on the gates, keeping house doors locked so toddlers cannot slip out of the house unmonitored, and installing power safety covers for the pool. By Levitt’s estimation, if parents followed these instructions, as many as 400 lives per year might be saved.

What about just watching your youngster? The National SAFE Kids Campaign reports that about 88 percent of children who drowned were under some form of supervision. It doesn’t take much to effect a tragedy: Small distractions such as talking to somebody, reading, eating, or using the phone were a factor in most of the cases. Their survey found that parents are overconfident in their children’s safety and abilities in water, and need to be more active in supervising children.

As for diving boards, you may have noticed that almost no home pools built in the last few years have them. While bizarre accidents could occur, such as the board literally splitting in half during a dive, it was the 1993 case of 14-year-old Shawn Meneely, performing a so-called “suicide dive,” that opened the door to big time litigation, and the disappearance of the boards altogether. For the uninitiated, such a dive involves propelling yourself headfirst off the board, with as much force as possible, and not raising your arms for protection.

Arguably, such foolish misuse of many other products could be just as devastating, but there were enough incidents connected with diving boards to scare off insurance companies, and, as such, the industry.

By the same token, if you are the parent of a small child, and this article scared you a little bit, take heart, and be doubly vigilant this summer around that swimming pool.