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Surge Desk

Red River Tragedy Raises Hard Questions About America's Drowning Rates

Aug 3, 2010 – 2:49 PM
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David Knowles

David Knowles Writer

(Aug. 3) -- In the hot summer months, an inviting river can prove a deadly place, as Monday night's tragedy proves, when six teenagers in Shreveport, La., drowned after falling into what was thought to be a sinkhole in the Red River.

The victims, who ranged in age from 13 to 18, were siblings from two different families. They were said to have been wading in the river and come upon a sudden drop-off. None of the adults who had accompanied the teens could swim, KTLV news reported.

On the same day, a 32-year-old Minnesota man jumped from his boat into Wisconsin's St. Croix River and never resurfaced. His body was later recovered and he was pronounced dead. It was the third river drowning in the area in a week, Fox 9 News reported.

Other drownings (and one near drowning) were also reported Monday in Oregon's Willamette River, New York's Buffalo River, Alabama's Tennessee River, Colorado's Platte River and Georgia's Savannah River.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 3,443 unintentional drownings in the United States in 2007, an average of 10 per day, which is slightly lower than Monday's death toll. Checking in at the CDC's website and around the Web, Surge Desk found the following information regarding annual drownings in America.

Age, Location and Drowning: How old is the average drowning victim? Where is the most likely place for a drowning to occur?
One in five children who drown are 14 years old or younger. According to a study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, back in 2003, "From 1990 to 2000, drowning was the second leading cause of unintentional injury death among US children between 1 and 19 years of age," an overwhelming majority of which occurred in unfenced swimming pools.

Meanwhile, the majority of drownings each year in the United States for people over the age of 15 occur in natural settings, such as rivers, lakes and oceans.

Gender and Drowning: More male or female victims?
In 2007, males drowned at a rate 3.7 times higher than females in the U.S.

Race and Drowning: Do some races suffer more?
Yes. African-Americans, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives all have a slightly higher rate of drowning than whites. African-American children ages 5 to 14 have a drowning rate that is 3.1 times higher than that of white children of the same age group.

The CDC attributes the discrepancy in the drowning rates to such factors as access to swimming pools (presuming that African-Americans have less access than do whites), as well as a difference in the way cultures socially inculcate the importance of "choosing recreational water-related activities." According to a CDC survey, African-Americans reported the lowest swimming ability of all racial groups in the U.S.

Current Strength: At what rate must the water be traveling?
Of course, a major factor in river drownings is current. "The current doesn't have to be moving that fast. In fact, in public safety diving they even tell us not to do searches if the current is over two knots," rescuer Wes Hoopengardner told Huntsville's WAAYTV after Monday's drowning in the Tennessee River. "Even in 3 mile an hour current, you're not going to swim against it."

Other Factors: Again, alcohol and water don't mix.
Another big risk factor is alcohol, which adults often consume when recreating on natural bodies of water such as rivers, and which impairs swimming ability. According to a 2004 study by Australian researchers:
Drowning appears to be the overwhelming cause of death associated with recreational aquatic activity with alcohol detected in the blood in 30%-70% of persons who drown while involved in this activity. The few relevant studies on degree of increased risk suggest persons with a blood alcohol level of 0.10 g/100 ml have about 10 times the risk of death associated with recreational boating compared with persons who have not been drinking, but that even small amounts of alcohol can increase this risk.

Red River Tragedy: How to Save a Drowning Victim
Filed under: Nation, Health, Surge Desk