Public Safety

Iowa drowning deaths show risk of swimming in open water

Study: Boys, teens, minorities most apt to drown in lakes and rivers

Al Hammarmeister of Iowa Falls throws his grandson, Hudson Alberts, 6, of Cedar Rapids, in the air June 23 at Lake Macbride in Solon. While swimming at the beach, he wore a life vest. “He’s not sure of the drop-off at the beach and neither am I,” said his mother, Cassie Hammarmeister. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)
Al Hammarmeister of Iowa Falls throws his grandson, Hudson Alberts, 6, of Cedar Rapids, in the air June 23 at Lake Macbride in Solon. While swimming at the beach, he wore a life vest. “He’s not sure of the drop-off at the beach and neither am I,” said his mother, Cassie Hammarmeister. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)
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Five children have drowned in Iowa lakes since the start of this swimming season, underscoring national research showing more children and teens die in open water than in pools.

Open water, which includes lakes, ponds and rivers, is less likely to have lifeguards and more likely to have hidden hazards, such as sudden drop-offs, vegetation and murky water that makes it hard to find a person who slips under.

“When someone is submerged, you have a matter of minutes to get them out,” said Corinne Peek-Asa, associate dean for research and a professor in the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

Open water swimming

More than 1,000 children drowned in the United States in 2016, according to a May report from Safe Kids Worldwide. That year, six children up to age 14 died in Iowa from drowning, the state Department of Public Health reported. Another eight people ages 15-24 drowned that year in Iowa.

Besides the five children, ages 2 to 17, who so far have died in Iowa from drowning starting the Memorial Day weekend, there have been several other incidents in which a child was resuscitated after being pulled from the water.

In another case, a Minnesota man drowned June 15 while trying to rescue his 7-year-old niece at Lake Red Rock near Pella. The girl was saved, but the man died.

Open water drownings made up 43 percent of all childhood drownings in the United States in 2016, compared with 38 percent in pools, 9 percent in bathtubs and 10 percent unspecified, Safe Kids Worldwide reported.

Boys make up 80 percent of open-water swimming deaths, the report showed.

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“We definitely see more risk taking” with boys, Peek-Asa said. “That plays out in drowning, skateboarding, driving.”

Risk-taking behavior often doesn’t slack off until men are in their mid-30s, she said.

As children age, there is a greater risk of drowning in open water, with nearly half of open-water childhood fatalities in 2016 being kids ages 15 to 19, the report showed. The next-highest group was age 4 or younger at 23 percent.

Peek-Asa said teens often get more freedom to swim and boat away from parents, where they might not be following family safety rules.

Racial disparities

Black and Native Americans are far more likely to die while swimming than their white peers. The open water drowning rate for blacks in 2016 was 13.7 per 1 million people, nearly twice the 7.1 rate for whites, Safe Kids Worldwide reported. The rate for Native Americans was 17.3 per 1 million.

The reasons for racial disparities are complex and, in some cases, connected to socioeconomic status.

“There are a lot of stereotypes about black women not wanting to get their hair wet or men not wanting to wear swim trunks,” said Marina Gorsuch, an assistant professor of economic and political science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., who has researched racial disparities in drowning.

“It’s really about the access to swimming.”

A 2017 study in the Review of Black Political Economy found states with a larger share of black competitive swimmers and lifeguards had lower drowning rates for blacks.

Florida, which has a strong history of black Olympic swimmers, a higher share of black lifeguards and free or subsidized swimming lessons, has erased the racial disparity in drowning deaths, Gorsuch said.

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“Florida, of all the states, has a very strong emphasis on getting all children to learn how to swim,” she said, adding that top black swimmers often lead these programs. “I think it’s very suggestive these programs are being successful.”

Life jackets and lifeguards

So how can Iowa reduce drowning deaths, including those in open water?

First of all, children should be wearing life jackets, Peek-Asa said.

Iowa law requires every person on a boat have a life jacket, but children 13 and older are not required to wear them. While the Iowa Department of Natural Resources does a good job checking boats for life vests and doing public education, Peek-Asa said, the state could boost safety by expanding who is required to wear life jackets.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a real safety champion in the Legislature,” she said.

Cassie Hammarmeister, of Cedar Rapids, had her son, Hudson Alberts, 6, wear a life vest as the family swam June 23 at Lake Macbride in Solon.

“He’s not sure of the drop-off at the beach and neither am I,” Hammarmeister said. With a jacket, “he has more freedom to have fun and enjoy the water.”

The Iowa DNR or municipalities with public beaches also could hire lifeguards, but some agencies have balked at the cost. The American Red Cross recommends lifeguards have frequent breaks and rotations to maintain vigilance, which means more than one guard would be needed at a time.

Des Moines Park and Recreation Director Benjamin Page told the Des Moines Register last week lifeguards at public beaches create a false sense of security for swimmers. This was after Ikran Noor, 6, died June 23 after being pulled from Gray’s Lake, owned by the city of Des Moines.

Fun but safe

Peek-Asa recommends parents use “touch supervision” with elementary-age or younger children — which means staying within arm’s reach of kids in the water. Even if children have passed swimming lessons, open-water swimming may be more tiring, especially if there are currents or waves from passing boats.

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Parents should have frequent conversations with kids about a family safety culture that involves learning to swim, wearing life jackets and not taking unnecessary risks, Peek-Asa said. Enrolling kids in swimming lessons or competitive swimming programs helps them develop the skills they need for both fun and emergencies.

“We want to prevent injuries, but it doesn’t mean we want to prevent fun,” Peek-Asa said. “What are the safest ways we can do these activities?”

Many Eastern Iowa communities provide free or reduced-cost swimming lessons.

Iowa City recently raised $16,000 during a 24-hour swim marathon with the money going toward swimming lesson scholarships for Iowa City kids.

“Our ultimate goal is to provide basic swim lessons to every child in Iowa City at no charge,” said Matthew Eckhardt, aquatics program supervisor for the city. “Learning to swim is not only potentially lifesaving for the swimmer and others, it also helps alleviate fear of the water, provides a healthy form of exercise, and promotes a variety of lifelong social and recreational activities.”

Iowa drownings this season

• Samuel Hake, 17, of Nashua, died May 26 while swimming at Chickasaw Park, an abandoned quarry near Ionia.

• Edgar Garcia, 16, of Omaha, died May 28 after he was tubing with his siblings and slipped off his tube at Lake Manawa beach, in Council Bluffs. There were three lifeguards at the beach, but they did not see the teen go under the water, KETV reported.

• Celeste Sandoval-Ramos, 2, of Perry, died June 19 after being pulled from water at Big Creek State Park, near Polk City, on June 16. The child had been at the park with her family.

• Landyn Short, 9, of Tama, died June 19 after being underwater for 50 minutes at Rock Creek State Park, in Jasper County, on June 17.

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• Ikran Noor, 6, died June 23 after being submerged in Gray’s Lake, in Des Moines, for about 20 minutes. Resuscitation efforts were not successful and she later died at Blank Children’s Hospital, police said.

Safety tips

• Use designated swimming areas.

• Talk with children about the additional risks of open water, including sudden drop-offs, vegetation and currents or waves from passing boats.

• Have children wear Coast Guard-approved life jackets. Arm floaties aren’t as good because a child’s head still could go underwater. Inflatable water toys do not prevent drowning.

• Parents should stay in the water, within arm’s reach of children elementary age or younger while swimming.

• Enroll your children in swimming lessons, so they can learn safety skills including treading water, breathing while swimming and how to jump into water over their heads and be able to return to the surface.

• Learn basic water rescue skills and CPR.

Sources: Safe Kids Worldwide and Corinne Peek-Asa, associate dean for research and a professor in the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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