When 3-year-old Anthony Muniz drowned in a neighbor’s backyard pool here earlier this month, the tragedy was particularly piercing: Little Anthony had been named for his mother’s teenage brother, who died in his family’s pool years ago.
The fence that Anthony climbed over after slipping out of his Long Island home on June 6 was four feet tall, as required by the town where he lived, Brookhaven. An hour’s drive west, the fence would have had to be five feet in the town of Hempstead and six feet in North Hempstead. And the pool he drowned in, built about 30 years ago, was exempt from a new New York state law that requires alarms, but only for new or renovated pools.
There are no national laws on pool safety. A bill to authorize federal grants to states that adopt stricter standards is being revised in a Congressional subcommittee after passing the Senate but falling short in the House last year.
In enacting the pool alarm law in December, New York joined Connecticut, which required alarms on new and renovated pools starting last year. New Jersey, like some other states, requires fences and self-closing, self-latching gates for new and renovated pools, and allows the option of secure covers, rather than an alarm, for hot tubs. Florida and California list alarms as one of several ways to meet their pool safety requirements.
And the Phoenix area, which suffered the highest rates of child drownings through the 1980s, with 34 children under age 5 dying in 1986, local officials found that prevention works. State and local laws enacted in the late 1980s required fences, gates and covers for pools, and community leaders embarked on a public education campaign that enlisted churches and utility meter readers, who check on their rounds to see that pool gates are closed. Fatalities dropped sharply — the rate of pool drownings for children under 5 in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, peaked at 19 per 100,000 in 1986 and fell to about 5 per 100,000 sometime after 2000, according to the Department of Health Services — despite a surge in population and the number of pools. Last summer, for the first time in decades, no children drowned.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports there are about 260 drowning deaths of children younger than 5 each year in swimming pools, and a 2003 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics estimated that for each drowning, up to four more children suffer near-drownings serious enough to require hospitalizations, many resulting in permanent disability. In the metro Denver area, two children have drowned in swimming pools so far this summer.
For children under 5, pools account for far more drownings than bathtubs and natural bodies of water, according to the National Safety Council and the National Center for Health Statistics. Safety advocates have accused the pool industry of downplaying hazards and resisting regulation to avoid worrying consumers.
To reduce the risk of drowning, CPSC recommends adopting layers of protection, including physical barriers, such as a fence with self-closing, self-latching gates completely surrounding pools to prevent unsupervised access by young children. If the house forms a side of the barrier, use alarms on doors leading to the pool area or a power safety cover over the pool.
Pool alarms, invented more than two decades ago, come in various forms and range in cost from about $200-$300. The alarm floats in the pool or is mounted on its lip or nearby. Some sound whenever anyone passes through a door or gate to a pool area. Others detect motion near or in a pool. A special bracelet can trigger alarms when a wearer goes in the water.
It is important to always be prepared for an emergency by having rescue equipment and a phone near the pool. Also, all parents who own pools should learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Last year, CPSC highlighted the growing dangers of the popular inflatable or portable pools, which range in size from small kiddie pools to pools up to 4-feet deep and 18-feet wide. Between 2004 and 2006, CPSC received 47 reports of deaths of children related to inflatable pools.
Large inflatable pools are relatively inexpensive – large pools with water filters can cost under $200. They often have slanted or flexible sides, which make it easier for children to climb into the pool even without a ladder present. These pools may fall outside of local building codes that require barriers, and are often purchased by consumers without considering the barriers, such as fencing, necessary to protect young children.
In addition to barriers and constant supervision, CPSC offers these tips to help prevent drowning deaths:
- Since every second counts, always look for a missing child in the pool first. Precious time is often wasted looking for missing children anywhere but in the pool.
- Don’t leave toys and floats in the pool that can attract young children and cause them to fall in the water when they reach for the items.
- For above-ground and inflatable pools with ladders, remove or secure the ladder when the pool is not in use.
- Even if children can swim, it doesn’t make them drown-proof. Always supervise children using the pool.
For more information about drowning prevention, read CPSC’s Swimming Pool Safety Alert (PDF), Safety Barrier Guidelines for Pools (PDF) and How to Plan for the Unexpected (PDF).
Also, CPSC recently updated its Guidelines for Entrapment Hazards: Making Pools and Spas Safer (PDF) http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/363.pdf , which gives information on reducing drain entrapment dangers. CPSC recommends having a professional inspect pools and spas for entrapment hazards, and making sure appropriate drain covers are in place. Further information can be found at the CPSC website.