Drowning Deaths are just the Tip of the Iceberg

When I took my first American Red Cross Junior Life Saving (yes, you read that right) course, this little brown book stated that there were approximately 12,000 drowning deaths each year in the United States. Then after many years the drowning rate dropped to about 7,000 drowning deaths per year and stayed there for a while. Even with the population growing, much improved data collection, and many more water sports and activities to produce drowning, the fatal drowning rate now is below 4,000. So everyone involved in water safety should be reminded that our efforts are being rewarded. Even though drowning continues to be the leading cause of accidental death for children under the age of four, I and many of our colleagues continue to concentrate on the number of deaths, rather than the total number of lives adversely affected by catastrophic brain injuries as well as  the pain and suffering of the surviving family members.

For every pediatric death, at least two non-fatal drowning hospitalizations are reported.1 According to the CDC, more than half of drowning victims treated in emergency departments (EDs) require hospitalization or transfer for further care.2  Nonfatal drowning can result in severe brain damage that can lead to learning disabilities, permanent vegetative state, memory problems, and learning disabilities.2 The examinations upon release from the hospital do not show all neurological outcomes related to brain injury, because long-term examinations are needed.3 For this reason and others, it is clear that serious neurological disorders are underestimated. The financial burden can be insurmountable as well. A single non-fatal drowning resulting in brain damage can cost upwards of 4 million dollars.4

In addition to treatment of the child, the surviving family members now have to closely watch their injured loved one suffer for a prolonged period of time. There are also many secondary victims who worked at the pool, beach or waterpark where the drowning event took place. Whether these water safety individuals did their job properly or not, they will live with the fact that this catastrophic hypoxic/anoxic injury took place on their watch. Trust me, the attorneys representing the families of the injured party will emphasize and focus on the negligence committed by many members of the water safety team that were responsible for the aquatic facility where the injury occurred.

So if we are going to continue to be effective in drowning prevention, I believe we need to broaden the scope of our mission to include non-fatal hypoxic/anoxic drowning injuries and the myriad of people these catastrophic injuries effect. Yes, we need to talk about drowning deaths, but we also need to aggressively address non-fatal drowning events, how significantly they hurt a large group of people, and how costly they are financially and emotionally. Finally, as we have stated many times before, a Note and Float standard of care in America would reduce these drowning numbers by at least 50%.


  1. Weiss J. Prevention of drowning. Pediatrics. 2010;126(1):e253–62. [PubMed]
  2. http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/water-safety/waterinju...
  3. Suominen, P.K. & Vahatalo, R. (2012). Neurologic long term outcome after drowning in children. Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation, & Emergency Medicine, 20(55).
  4. http://www.swimsfoundation.org/drownstats.html

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Comment by Tom Griffiths on December 27, 2014 at 7:06pm


Good points and all well taken. My AI blogs are narrowly focused, and continue to address AI readership which is composed primarily of Aquatic Recreation Professionals owning, operating, and servicing pools, beaches, and waterparks.

Happy New Year!


Comment by Gerald M. Dworkin on December 26, 2014 at 3:40am

By the way, we encourage AI readers to subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter, as well as to follow us on Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter where we post stories about drowning incidents daily.  This morning, alone, we've posted stories about fatal and non-fatal submersions that occurred over the weekend involving more than 30 persons.

Comment by Gerald M. Dworkin on December 26, 2014 at 3:35am

I agree with Tom's comments about the devastating costs, both financial and emotional, relating to non-fatal submersion incidents.  Our measure of success should be the prevention of aquatic-related incidents, and not just the number of fatalities.

However, even though we pat ourselves on the back for the number of drowning deaths being reduced to approximately 4,000 per year, rather than the 12,000 mentioned when Tom participated in his Junior Lifesaving Resources, these numbers are absolutely non accurate.  They do NOT reflect the number of drowning deaths associated with boating incidents (approximately 1,000 per year); the number of fatalities associated with submerged vehicle incidents (approximately 400 - 600 per year, and that number is going to increase); the number of drowning deaths associated with environmental emergencies, such as floods and other storm-related incidents; or the number of drowning deaths associated with recreational activities on the ice (such as ice skating, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, etc.).

So, in reality, we are looking at approximately 7,000 drowning fatalities per year.  And, for every fatality, there are many more non-fatal incidents resulting in neurological impairment.

The majority of drowning prevention literature and advocacies are also focused on the prevention of pediatric submersion incidents, when the majority of fatal and non-fatal submersion incidents involve adults, not children.

Gerry Dworkin, Consultant

Aquatics Safety & Water Rescue



P.O. Box 3006 (3 Mills Rd.)

Kennebunkport, Maine 04046

207/967-8614 (gerald@lifesaving.com)

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