Hidden Summer Dangers

Swimming Pool and Water Park Worries

About 1,500 U.S. children drown annually and for every drowning there are six to 10 near-drownings, which can result in permanent brain damage. Backyard pools pose the greatest risk to children, but nearly one in five drownings occurs in a public pool with certified lifeguards present, according to recent data from the National Safety Council.

How is that possible? Drowning isn't a noisy event -- it's swift and nearly silent. The child's head slips under water, she takes one lungful, and she's gone. Undertrained or overstretched lifeguards simply may not spot a child who needs help. And drowning isn't the only hazard: According to the CDC, 1,474 people contracted waterborne diseases from swimming in chlorinated pools between 1999 and 2000.

What You Can Do

Ask about lifeguard training. Lifeguards should be certified by a national agency such as the American Red Cross or YMCA and be certified in infant, child, and adult CPR. "They should also have in-service training at least once a month where they test their skills," says Connie Harvey, who helps write aquatic programs for the American Red Cross in Washington, DC.

Make sure there are enough lifeguards. Lifeguards should be able to scan and supervise their entire area of responsibility from one side and back within a 30-second period. If this isn't possible, there aren't enough lifeguards. Incidents typically occur because a lifeguard is inappropriately positioned, is busy with other duties, or is distracted by talking. And don't assume that all employees are lifeguards; you'll have to ask. Some water parks have attendants who make sure people follow rules, meet height requirements for slides, and wait their turn to go down slides.

Watch carefully. "Nearly all pool injuries are a result of horsing around," says Bill Connolly, director of the Division of Codes and Standards with the New Jersey State Department of Community Affairs in Trenton. "Supervision is key to safety." Never take your eyes off your child, and make sure she follows the rules of the pool (especially no running around the deck!).

Prevent waterborne illness. In June 1998, a dozen children contracted E. coli bacteria at an Atlanta water park and one child died. The likely cause: a child with diarrhea. Chlorine kills most germs right away, but the bacteria from fecal material can live in pools for days until chlorine is able to do its job. Chlorine levels should be monitored at least every four hours in pools during the peak season and more often in crowded water parks, says Michael Beach, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. One clue that the pool may not be safe: cloudy water. "If you can't see the main drain in the deep end, that pool shouldn't be open," says Dr. Beach."Otherwise, how could a lifeguard spot a submerged child?" Stinging in your eyes is another warning sign: It's the byproduct of chlorine binding with dirt and urine.

To lower a child's risk, tell her not to swallow the water (a source of infection), and clean water out of her ears so bacteria can't incubate. Also shower before entering a pool. If your child has a bathroom accident even in a swim diaper, exit the pool.

Be mindful of all sources of water. A child can drown in only two inches of water. In a four-year period, the CPSC reported that 58 children under 5 drowned in five-gallon buckets. Also don't ignore signs on fountains that note they're not intended for play. Fountains aren't always chlorinated, and children have contracted waterborne illnesses from them, says Dr. Beach.

Dress your child appropriately. Nylon and spandex slide more easily and aren't as likely to get caught as other materials. If the park or pool permits it, insist that your child wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket if she isn't a capable swimmer. What about water wings? Don't rely on them as a safety device; use them only with close adult supervision.

Come up with a plan in case anybody gets separated. Three water parks -- Wild Rivers in Irvine, CA, Palace Entertainments Wet 'n Wild in Las Vegas, and Dolly's Splash Country in Pigeon Forge, TN -- offer SafeTzone, a wristwatch-like unit children wear; it allows parents to look up their whereabouts on a screen. At least 20 more amusement and water parks plan to install SafeTzone over the next two years. If it's not available at the park you choose, show your child how to find the "lost parents" station. For a younger child, point out uniformed staff wearing name tags or suggest that kids ask another parent for help. One more option: Bring your own walkie-talkies.

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