Nonfatal drownings of children younger than 15 in 2022 were statistically unchanged nationwide from the year before, while fatal drownings among the same age group fell by about 16% between 2018 and 2020, according to a recent staff report to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.
Still, Long Island and national experts say, drownings continue to be the number one cause of death among children ages 1 to 4, and since most occur at home, parents need to take preventive measures.
"The most common times that kids drown, under the age of 4, is mostly in their own swimming pools," said Dr. Jacqueline Bober, an attending emergency room physician at Stony Brook Children's Hospital.
"I see a lot of drownings at family barbecues," added Bober. She advised parents to hire a lifeguard for their swim parties, and if that's too expensive, designate people on "pool watches" to monitor activity in the pool during parties.
Drownings among children is a "silent epidemic," said Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, an education, awareness and advocacy group. "Drowning is the single leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 and most parents are unaware that that's the case."
In its publicly-released May report — which has not yet been reviewed or accepted by the product safety commission, officials noted — the staff authors wrote that there were an estimated annual average of 6,300 pool- or spa-related, hospital emergency room-treated nonfatal drownings involving children from 2020 to 2022. (Spa-related nonfatal and fatal drownings refers to spas and hot tubs, the report said).
In 2022, there were an estimated 6,400 nonfatal drowning injuries involving children, down from 6,800 in 2021. In 2020, the estimate was 5,800.
According to the report, 76% of children treated in emergency rooms for nonfatal drowning injuries were younger than age 5, while 75% of those who died from drowning were in that age group, the report said.
The report estimated that there were 371 pool- or spa-related fatal drownings reported per year on average among children younger than 15 between 2018 and 2020. The different reporting periods for nonfatal and fatal drownings was the result of a lag in fatality reporting, the authors said.
In 2020, an estimated 340 children younger than 15 drowned, down from 367 in 2019 and 406 in 2018. Still, the report offered caution on the numbers.
"These numbers are considered minimum counts only derived from anecdotal data and cannot be used as generalized estimates for determining trends in the U.S. population," the report said.
Experts strongly urged parents to be vigilant. Even nonfatal drownings can take their toll, they noted.
"These nonfatal drownings can cause significant injury," Katchmarchi said. Those injuries, Bober said in a separate interview, can mean "their quality of life goes down" after not getting oxygen to the brain for several minutes, for example.
Katchmarchi said 70% of toddler drownings are happening "when they are not expected to be around water." He said children's "access to water" needs be restricted.
Katchmarchi and Bober said barriers and alarms around backyard swimming pools are essential.
Bober said her "number one safety tip" was a "climb-proof" fence around the pool that should be 4 feet or higher on all sides and equipped with an automatic closing latch. A chain-link fence is not climb-proof and therefore inappropriate, she added.
Katchmarchi said parental supervision was necessary, such as being "within arms reach of their child." He called for teaching children "basic aquatic skills as early as possible."
Swimming safety tips for children
- Hire a lifeguard for swim parties.
- If a lifeguard is too expensive, designate people on "pool watches" to monitor activity in the pool.
- Consider a "climb-proof" fence around the pool that should be 4 feet or higher on all sides and equipped with an automatic closing latch.
- Enroll young children for swimming lessons.