Feature Article - April 2008
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Life Preservers

Meeting the Challenges of 21st Century Aquatic Risk

By Hayli Morrison


The Linguistics Dispute

Dr. Tom Griffiths suggests that current drowning statistics may not create a complete picture of the problem facing America. Griffiths founded the Aquatic Safety Research Group and works as director of aquatics and safety officer for athletics at Penn State University. A 30-plus-year industry veteran, Griffiths believes that as many as one-third of drowning deaths in lifeguard-supervised pools cannot be prevented because they are related to other causes.

"The horrible thing in our country is that if a middle-aged man goes to the gym and runs on the treadmill and has a heart attack, there's probably not going to be a lawsuit," Griffiths said. "If a middle-aged man goes to the gym and does laps in the pool and has a heart attack, the coroner's going to label it a drowning. We could immediately and significantly reduce drownings in America if we just redefine what drownings are."

Griffiths advocates the elimination of the term "passive drowning," which indicates a person who is unconscious and motionless in the water, versus one who is conscious and actively fighting for air.

"Coroners and medical examiners have to say in their reports, 'This could have been a drowning, but it could have been cardiac arrhythmia, stroke or heart attack,'" Griffiths said.

The Sanitation Challenge

One less disputed, yet equally alarming, area of aquatics safety is that of recreational water illness (RWI). There were 59 outbreaks of water-borne disease in 23 states in 2001 to 2002, according to the CDC. In 2003 to 2004, there were 62 outbreaks in 26 states and Guam. Because one outbreak has the potential to touch hundreds, or even thousands, of people, the victims were many. The outbreaks affected 2,093 people in 2001 to 2002 and 2,698 people in 2002 to 2003.

Disease-causing pathogens can be transmitted via direct contact, like swallowing water, or indirect contact. It can also be airborne with the inhalation of infected water droplets, or it can be vector-borne, transmitted through the bite of an infected insect or animal. The most common disease-causing pathogens found in water include parasites, bacteria that can cause "swimmer's ear" or Legionella pneumophilia, viruses like Hepatitis A or Norovirus gastroenteritis, and fungus like ringworm or athlete's foot.

Amazingly, education about recreational water illnesses is not part of the standard training given to lifeguards, lifeguard supervisors, swimming coaches and aquatics facility service technicians.

"We're seeing education levels improve about modules that will raise the level of awareness of recreational water illnesses," said Sam Fruia, natatorium coordinator for Conroe Independent School District in Texas. "It's a direct reaction to the concerns the CDC has had over the last several years over the safety of the water in private and semi-private aquatics facilities."