New report reveals danger of childhood drownings in open waters

Red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the sound of burgers sizzling, and long warm nights. As we head into Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer, we are drawn to cooling off in pools, oceans, lakes.

Unfortunately, the risk of drowning rises with warmer weather.

Drowning is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. A new report by Safe Kids Worldwide and Nationwide's Make Safe Happen program estimates 1,000 children drown every year, with 70 percent of the drownings taking place from May through August.

Holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day draw swimmers to Lake Lanier in Flowery Branch. AJC FILE PHOTO 2016

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As we kick off summer, the message from water safety experts is not to stay out of water, but to learn the lifesaving skill of swimming, and to take steps for vigilant supervision and an understanding of risks associated with swimming in pools and open water.

Nadyne Siegel Brown, owner of SwimKids of Georgia, based in Cumming, teaches aquatics survival and swimming lessons. CONTRIBUTED

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The study, called “The 2018 Open Safety Water Report,” reveals children are more likely to drown in an open water (such as lakes, rivers and oceans) than a pool, particularly as children get older. For younger children ages 1-4, the majority of drownings (57 percent) occur in pools. By the time children are 15, however, the risk of drowning in an ocean, lake or another open water is far greater. Nine percent of drownings involving teenagers ages 15-19 occur in pools, compared to 73 percent in open water, according to this study based on analyzing data on drownings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and and the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention.

In Georgia, between 2007 and 2016, there were 434 drownings in children and teens 19 years and younger — an average of 43 per year, according to an analysis of CDC data and provided by the researchers of this new report. The 434 figure includes 182 pool drownings, 169 open water drownings and 34 bathtub drownings.

Drownings can happen to adults and children, especially this time of year. In this file photo, Forsyth County divers prepare to search in the swimming area of Buford Dam Park on Lake Lanier for an apparent drowning victim. AJC FILE PHOTO 2011

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Dr. Marcee White, a Washington, D.C., pediatrician and medical adviser for Safe Kids Worldwide, said swimming and playing in water is fun and great exercise, but families need to pay close attention to swimming safety — especially in open water. Along with decreased visibility, open bodies of water can have unpredictable and strong currents, and sudden drop-offs, and even experienced swimmers may struggle in the colder water of lakes and rivers.

A responsible adult should always be watching children whenever they’re in water, she said. They should not take their eyes off children in the water, not even for a minute. Secondly, very young children should stay within arm’s length of an adult when in and around the water. And for young children — as well as weak swimmers and nonswimmers — a Coast Guard-approved life jacket offers a lot of protection, she said.

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Boys are at greatest risk of drowning: 8 in 10 open water drowning victims are males. African-American children are also twice as likely to drown in open water than their white counterparts, according to the study.

The racial disparity also exists with swimming pools. Black children ages 5-19 drown in swimming pools at a rate more than five times that of white children, according to the CDC.

"No one ever thinks it's going to happen to their children," said Nadyne Siegel Brown, owner of SwimKids of Georgia. SwimKids, based in Cumming, offers aquatics survival classes and swim lessons. A key component of their program is learning how to roll on your back and float.

“There has to be layers of protection like an onion because it can happen to the most vigilant parent,” she added.

In this file photo, Nadyne Siegel Brown, owner of SwimKids of Georgia, based in Cumming, teaches aquatics survival and swimming lessons. A key component program is to learning how to roll on one’s back and float in water. CONTRIBUTED

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Brown urged parents to put together a safety plan before they head to water — regardless of whether they are heading to a neighborhood pool, swimming hole or the Atlantic.

And for parents who don’t know how to swim themselves, it’s never too late to learn this lifesaving skill. Two years ago, Brown expanded her swim school to offer lessons for adults. She asks every parent if they can swim, and if the answer is no, she tells them, “I don’t know what it’s going to take to get you signed up to take swim lessons, but we are going to do whatever we can to make it happen.”

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More tips for keeping children safe around water:

— Designate a “water watcher.” This person should not be reading or texting. They should never take their eyes off the children. Adults should take turns and have a designated person watching at all times.

— Make sure children learn to swim. Go to and type in your ZIP code to find free and low-cost swim lessons close to you. If you are an adult and don't know how to swim, remember it's never too late to learn this lifesaving skill.

— Even if your child can swim, vigilance is needed. A child can slip and fall, get tired or play a dangerous water game such as “hold your breath.”

— Teach your child that swimming in open water is different from swimming in a pool. Make sure they are aware of challenges such as limited visibility, currents and undertow.

— Air-filled or foam toys are not safety devices. Don’t use water wings, noodles or inner tubes instead of life jackets. These toys are not designed to keep swimmers safe.

— Drowning can happen quickly and quietly. You might expect a drowning person to splash or yell for help. Sometimes, people quietly slip beneath the water.

— Use designated swimming and recreational areas whenever possible. Professionals have assessed the area, and there are usually signs posted regarding hazards and lifeguard schedules.

— Use a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket in and around open water. Get a life jacket (also called a personal floatation device or PFD) that is appropriate for a child’s weight and the water activity.

— Learn CPR. In the time it takes for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills can save a life.

— Avoid the “everyone is watching, no one is watching” scenario. Family and friends gather at a backyard barbecue and pool party. Adults assume everyone is watching the kids, but no one is watching.

SOURCES: Safe Kids Worldwide and Nationwide's Make Safe Happen, USA Swimming Foundation and American Red Cross

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