Swimming-pool drowning cases involve a disproportionate number of black boys and young adults, and public pools appear to be the primary danger zone, U.S. government researchers have found.
In one of the most extensive studies to look at the issue, investigators found that nearly half of the swimming-pool drownings they tracked occurred among African Americans - with males being at particular risk.
The findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health, not only confirm past research showing that a large number of young drowning victims are African American, but also identify where these deaths are happening.
Nationally, between 1995 and 1998, 51 percent of drownings among blacks ages 5 to 24 happened in a public pool. Most often, it was a hotel or motel pool. That stands in contrast to white children and young adults, 55 percent of whom drowned in a residential pool.
It's not clear why young African Americans, males in particular, are more likely than other racial groups to drown. But the new findings point to the places where prevention efforts are most needed, according to the investigators, led by Dr. Gitanjali Saluja of the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Hotel and motel pools, they point out, often lack lifeguards. So it's vital for children to always have an adult with them.
The study findings are based on federal data for 678 swimming-pool drownings among 5- to 24-year-olds between 1995 and 1998.
Overall, three-quarters of the victims were male, and black males were at greatest risk. Their rate of drowning was anywhere from 5 to 12 times higher than that of white males, depending on the age group. Hispanic males were also at greater risk than whites, but the difference was much smaller.
Among females, African Americans had a higher drowning rate through the teen years. White and Hispanic females had similar rates at all ages.
Researchers have speculated that the higher drowning risk among African Americans has to do with income; lower-income families are less likely to be able to afford swimming lessons. However, Saluja's team found that the racial discrepancy persisted even when they factored in income. More research, they say, is needed to understand the underlying reasons.
The researchers lacked information on whether drowning victims had ever had swimming lessons, but they point out that pediatric experts recommend that all children age 6 and older learn to swim.
Clearly, wealth and thus exposure to swimming pools plays a role in this, but the much lower rates of drowning among Hispanic males than among black males argues for a more sophisticated view of the problem. Further, blacks don't spend that much time at motels and hotels, so the high rate of black male drownings there needs explanation.
I've long argued that nature and nurture work together here. Blacks tend to have denser bones and black males, when young and in good shape, lower body fat percentage. Fat is lighter than water and thus helps you float. Muscle is heavier than water and thus helps you sink. You don't need to be able to float easily to swim (lots of Olympic swimmers are denser than water), but it makes it harder and scarier to learn to swim. And that's one reason more black youths don't learn to swim.
The pattern of black females having higher drowning rates than white females through the teenage years, but not afterward would fit this body fat model too.
For example, Michael Jordan, who stayed at 3% body fat his whole NBA career, has spent plenty of time around fancy swimming pools, but he hasn't learned how to swim. Us old crocks will also remember how during the swimming race in the first Superstars trashsport competition on ABC in 1973, the great boxer Joe Frazier damn near drowned.
With the pool season rapidly approaching, make sure your kids know how to swim.