Summer means fun around the water – the pool, waterpark, lake, ocean or your favorite fishing hole. The beauty of Arkansas’ lakes and streams rivals any place in the country. Bodies of water seem to hold a primal attraction for us. It may be the life-giving properties of water, as a source of food, its ability to relax us, or the fun we have swimming, boating, fishing or water skiing.
When summer sun and heat pull us to our favorite water locations, it also brings tragedies of drownings and illness. These can be prevented if everyone knew how to stay safe around water.
What’s in that water?
Even your clean, chlorinated neighborhood pool can hold hidden germs that can cause diarrhea, rashes and ear infections. Natural bodies of water can also harbor illness dangers. The Arkansas Department of Health says Recreational Water Illness (RWI) is caused by germs that are spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs/spas, water playgrounds, lakes, rivers or oceans. RWIs include many types of infections, including stomach, skin, ears, lungs, eyes, neurologic and wounds.
The chemical chlorine is added to pool or hot tub water to kill germs. If used properly, it can kill most germs within minutes. However, some germs can live in properly chlorinated water for over a week. Germs like Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, norovirus and E.coli in the water can make swimmers sick if they swallow the water. Cryptosporidium is the leading cause of outbreaks linked to swimming.
When pee, poop, sweat and dirt on our bodies goes into the water, the chemicals break down these contaminants instead of killing germs. This uses up the chemicals’ power, which means there’s less chemical to kill germs. That’s why pool and hot tub water should be checked frequently. The more people who get in it, the more often the water should be checked and treated. A one-minute shower before entering the pool will remove most dirt and sweat on your body.
No one is drown-proof
Getting sick isn’t the only danger around water. Wherever there is water, there is a risk of drowning. Arkansas ranks seventh in the nation for drowning deaths among children, with a drowning rate 60 percent higher than the national average. Drowning is a leading cause of unintentional injury death among children ages 1 to 14. Drowning is second only to birth defects in causing death in children ages 1 to 4. Two young children have already drowned in Arkansas during May.
For every child who drowns, another five children go to emergency departments to treat submersion injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These injuries can cause brain damage, which can cause memory problems, learning disabilities or a permanent vegetative state. Home swimming pools are where most young children drown. People ages 5 to 84 are most likely to drown in natural water settings, such as lakes, rivers and streams.
About 80 percent of all drownings are of young boys and men. African American children have a much higher risk of drowning. Between the ages of 5 to 14, the fatal drowning rate of African American children is almost three times greater than white children of the same ages, according to the CDC.
Water safety tips
Follow these simple steps from the CDC to keep the swimmers in your family safe this summer:
• Learn life-saving skills. Everyone should know the basics of swimming and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in case of a drowning.
• Learn to swim. Enrolling children in swimming lessons reduces the risk of downing in children ages 1 to 4 years. Children learn to swim easily when they are young, and most swim lessons start at age 3. A child can get used to the water much earlier. Even infants can learn to float. Experts recommend teaching them to exhale under water and pull their faces out of the water, and to kick and move their arms around. Anyone at any age – even adult non-swimmers – should not be embarrassed to learn to swim. It is a life-saving skill everyone should have.
• Supervise constantly. If a child goes missing, check the water first. When children are in or near water (including bathtubs), close supervision must be adults’ top priority. Never assume someone else is watching the children and inexperienced swimmers. Even with a lifeguard present, all the adults in your group should agree on who will watch the children. Give that person regular breaks. Stay within arm’s reach of young children while they’re in the water. Always maintain eye contact on the swimmers. Supervising adults should avoid distracting activities like playing cards, reading, phone talking or texting, and using alcohol or drugs. Be sure a lifeguard is on duty before swimming in public pools. Arkansas law requires public pools to employ at least one lifeguard for every 2,000-square-feet of water surface.
• Require life jackets. Be sure all children and adult non-swimmers wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets in and around natural bodies of water, even if they know how to swim. Life jackets should be used in and around pools for non-swimmers and weaker swimmers, even if a lifeguard is present.
• Fence it off. Install a four-sided, isolation fence with self-closing and self-latching gates around home swimming pools. Pool fences should separate the house and play area from the pool. Arkansas law requires public pools to have at least a four-foot fence.
• Add protection by installing pool safety covers and pool alarms. Remove the access ladder when above-ground pools are not in use. Remove anything that would provide access to the pool such as furniture, trees, walls or playground equipment. Have appropriate reaching or throwing equipment around a pool.
• Teach children to always ask permission to go near water. Establish family rules about limits, based on each person’s ability, before you get to the water. Enforce these rules without fail. Do not let children play around pool or hot tub drains or suction fittings. Keep toys that are not in use away from the pool. They can attract young children to the pool.
• Do not permit breath-holding contests under water. Children can hyperventilate and drown quickly.
• Don’t swim alone. It increases your drowning risk because there’s no one to call for help if you encounter a problem. A seizure disorder or another chronic condition can cause loss of consciousness. Always use the buddy system to increase your chances of surviving rapids, rip currents, unseen rocks or other hazards.
• Check drains in pools – can you see the drain at the deep end? Is the drain cover secured and in good repair? Clear water helps lifeguards and other swimmers to see swimmers underwater.
• Keep germs out of the water. Don’t swim when you have diarrhea. Shower with soap before you start swimming and take a rinse shower before you get back into the water. Showering for 1 minute removes most dirt and sweat. Don’t swim if you have an open wound.
• Don’t swallow the water you swim in.
• Take bathroom breaks every hour; check diapers every 30 to 60 minutes. Parents of young children must enforce this rule as safe and courteous behavior. Change diapers in the bathroom or diaper-changing area and not at poolside where germs can rinse into the water. Wash hands after going to the toilet or changing diapers. Teach children as soon as they’re out of diapers not to pee in pools or hot tubs.
• Check the chlorine level and pH before getting into the water. Hardware or pool-supply stores sell pool test strips. To maximize germ-killing power, keep pools at a free chlorine level of 1–3 mg/L or parts per million (ppm) and the pH of 7.2–7.8. Keep hot tubs/spas at a chlorine level of 3–4 ppm (or bromine at 4–6 ppm) and the pH of 7.2–7.8.
• Avoid electrocutions around water facilities by ensuring that sump pumps, power washers, pool vacuums and underwater lighting are protected by ground-fault circuit-interrupters (GFCIs).
Open bodies of water
Swimming, wading or walking by lakes, ocean shorelines, rivers and streams, drainage ditches, garden ponds, wells, cisterns and fountains can also be dangerous. Children are especially vulnerable to the dangers of being unsupervised around bathtubs, buckets of water, toilets or water troughs. They can drown in an inch of water.
• Understand that swimming is different in natural bodies of water compared to pool swimming. More skills and energy are required because of air temperatures, currents, waves, high and low tides, rapids and an uncertain bottom surface. All these conditions can change with the weather.
• Watch for severe weather. Check the weather before you leave and while you’re near the water. Leave the water at the first sign of thunder or lightening and seek shelter immediately. Don’t shelter near isolated trees, metal objects or open areas.
• Turn Around Don’t Drown! That’s the most important thing to remember when you encounter flooding. Floods cause more deaths than any other weather event. Never underestimate the force of moving water. Just six inches of fast-moving water can knock over an adult. More than half of flooding deaths occur in vehicles trying to drive through high water and are swept downstream. It only takes two feet of rushing water to carry a pickup truck or SUV downstream – even less for a car.
• Require life jackets or personal flotation devices around open bodies of water. Around open water, all children and adult non-swimmers must wear life jackets, even if they know how to swim. Wear a life jacket when boating, rafting, inner tubing or in a personal watercraft, don’t just carry it in the boat.
• Check all life jackets to be sure they’re the right size and in good repair. Check buckles and straps to ensure they’re functioning properly. Discard jackets that are torn or have loose straps. Never rely on swim rings, water wings, rafts or other inflatable toys because they can suddenly deflate. The life jacket should fit the intended user. Look for weight ranges on the label. Never put children in adult jackets. Put it on the child and lift the jacket from the shoulders. If it can be lifted above the child’s chin, it is too big, and the child can slip out and drown. Have the child practice swimming or staying afloat in it.
• Swim in designated areas supervised by lifeguards.
• Cautiously enter unknown or shallow water and always go feet first. Never jump in from a tree, bridge or ledge.
• Check for underwater obstacles such as rocks, dams, sudden drop-offs that change water depth and vegetation that could entangle feet.
• Dive only in safe areas marked for diving. Diving areas should be at least nine feet deep.
• Avoid drinking alcohol or using drugs around water. Most (70%) of water-related accidents and 25 percent of drownings involve alcohol. Designate a non-drinker as the safety person in gatherings where alcohol is present. Alcohol impairs judgment, balance and slows reaction time – all of which increase the risk of accidents.
Recognize signs of drowning
These are signs that a child or adult is in distress and in danger of drowning:
• Head is low in the water and mouth at water level
• Eyes are closed or glassy, empty or unfocused; hair may be in their eyes
• Legs are not being used to swim; often hanging vertical in the water
• Breathing is labored, gasping or hyperventilating
• Arms may be trying to swim or dogpaddle, but not making any headway
• Arms may be climbing an invisible ladder or trying to roll over on their back
• Arms may be instinctively pressing down at the sides to keep the head above water
The movie version of a drowning person – arms flailing and screaming for help – rarely occurs. Drownings are usually silent and don’t attract attention.
According to the American Red Cross (redcross.org/watersafetytips), here’s what you need to know if there’s an emergency on or near the water. Emergencies happen quickly and you must be watching in order to respond in time. Seconds count to prevent drowning or permanent disability. Never assume the swimmer is joking or playing around. Treat every suspected emergency as an actual emergency.
Swimmers in trouble rarely call out. They are trying to keep their head above water to breathe. The swimmer may be floating on his back or hanging onto a safety line. A drowning victim may be motionless and floating face down on the bottom or near the water’s surface. Follow these five steps:
1. Shout for help.
2. Throw out a rescue or flotation device to the person in trouble. It can be a life jacket, tree branch, pole, oar, rope, belt or towel. Brace yourself and don’t get pulled into the water. If the person is too far out, throw anything that will give him support such as a cooler, water jug, inner tube or flat board. Objects with a line attached will permit you to pull the person to safety.
3. Protect yourself. In most cases, only trained professionals should perform water rescues. The Red Cross’ advice is “Reach or throw, don’t go.”
4. Call 9-1-1, if needed.
5. Check for water safety hazards whenever you or your children visit another home or swimming location.
Photo by FatCamera