Each year, some 4,000 people drown in this country, making drowning the fourth leading cause of death by unintentional injury. But there is some cause for optimism. Researchers in the Seattle area found drowning deaths in their region decreased by nearly 60 per cent between 1975 and 1995. Part of the decline is attributed to less severe drowning incidents, part to less drinking on or near the water.
"I was frankly surprised by what appears to the very dramatic decrease related to alcohol. I am not aware of any other data that bears on this issue, and I didn't expect it to explain so much of the decrease," says Dr. Peter Cummings, M.D., University of Washington.
As reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, drowning deaths linked to alcohol fell by more than 80 per cent during the 21 years of the study. In 1995, half the prevented deaths from drowning could be attributed to the reduction in alcohol use. The research team from the Harborview Injury and Prevention Center found drowning deaths while boating decreased by nearly 75 per cent during the study period. Deaths from drowning while swimming declined more than 60 per cent. "Based on previous work and on some of our work, I would recommend that people not drink alcohol while boating or swimming or otherwise around water," says Dr. Cummings.
The researchers also believe safety improvements may have played a role in the drowning death decline. These include gates and fences around outdoor pools, expanded pool inspections by health officials, more and better trained lifeguards, and the increased use of life vests. The study found no evidence to suggest that better access to care played any role in decreasing drowning deaths.