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U.S. child drowning rates fall by 33% since 1980

By Marcelle Dibrell

Here’s some welcome news as the swimming season begins: Children are far less likely to drown in the United States today than they were in the 1980s. Child drowning rates have continued to fall even in the last decade, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The accompanying graphic above shows just how much.

For children ages 14 and under, drowning rates are about a third of what they were in the early ‘80s, and experts say that the two big reasons are the state and local laws that require more fencing and security features around family swimming pools, along with increased awareness of the dangers of letting young children swim alone.

As a country, the drowning rate for children age 14 and younger was 2.9 per 100,000 for three years from 1980 to 1982 (4,417 deaths). By comparison, from 2015 to 2020, that rate fell to 1.1 per 100,000 (2,051 deaths).

But perhaps nowhere has the drowning rate dropped so steeply and dramatically as in Arizona, where, from 1979 to 1989, an average of 40 children age 14 and under died of drowning. That corresponds to an average age-adjusted rate of 5 deaths per 100,000. Twenty years later, that number began to drop nearly in half. In fact, from 2013 to 2020, an average of 20 children age 14 and under were dying of drowning each year, corresponding to an age-adjusted rate of about 1.6 deaths per 100,000.

And guess what happened in 1990, when Arizona’s numbers began their steep descent?

Arizona enacted A.R.S. 36-1681, which added pool safety requirements to its list of statutes. The law requires all pools be entirely enclosed by a wall, fence, or barrier at least five feet tall and is subject to other requirements.

There are other interesting bits of information that can be teased out of the data provided by the CDC.

Looking at the accompanying graph, one can see that California closely follows the national average in terms of child drownings. Florida, meanwhile, is consistently higher in all years, measured from 1979 to the present.

It is important to keep in mind that the data reflect total drownings, and not just those in swimming pools and spas. And both California and Florida residents have plenty of coastal access to water, where a number of child drownings take place every year. Both states have lakes and ponds. And one can only hope that both states have relatively equal numbers of concerned and watchful parents.

Unlike California, Florida has a lot of canals, the locations of plenty of child drownings, but you do hear about people drowning in the L.A. and other California rivers every now and then, so it doesn’t seem likely that the existence of canals could be the sole reason for the large difference.

So what can explain the disparity? A big difference between the two states is the average yearly temperature.

While they do call it Sunny California, the entire state does experience enough of a winter that makes swimming an uninviting prospect for months at a time. Even in the southernmost parts of California, where residents enjoy minimally fluctuating temperatures, most people don’t swim in their pools from about November to March.

In much of Florida, on the other hand, it’s pretty much always swim season. With temperatures rarely dropping below 60 degrees, but usually hovering in the mid to late 70s during winter months, there’s no reason to not jump in the pool, or any other body of water for that matter, in January.

And with increased year-long water use, there’s an increased probability for drowning.

Another thing that could explain the disparity between the two states’ drowning rates is how many pools each has relative to their populations.

According to P.K. Data research, there are 5 million inground residential swimming pools in the U.S. More than 40 percent of them are located in two states: California and Florida.

But Florida has substantially more pools per capita.

Cape Analytics, a property information company, reports that there are approximately 1.2 million pools in California, which, accounting for the state’s population, means that there are roughly 3,000 pools per 100,000 Californians. Florida, meanwhile, has 1.4 million pools, and can boast 6,500 pools per 100,000 people. In other words, Florida has a little more than twice as many pools per person.

Taking that into account does a little to help to explain Florida’s consistently higher drowning rate, which, for the last 10 years, has been 2.7 times the drowning rate of California.

May has been named National Drowning Prevention Month in an effort to decrease childhood drownings. Every drowning is a tragedy, but it is gratifying to see that the numbers are going down.

With increased awareness this swim season, we can only hope that the trend will continue.

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