Parents: Take the Lead to End Shallow Water Blackout
by: Samuel James Freas, Ed.D.
When I was a young boy I repeatedly heard warnings from my mother like look both ways before crossing the street and don’t get in a car with a stranger. Now there is a need for parents to adopt another potentially life-saving mantra to help end the tragic deaths associated with Shallow Water Blackout (SWB). While statistics are unclear and range from hundreds to thousands of deaths a year, these numbers can be greatly reduced if education begins at a young age.
Simply put, Shallow Water Blackout is the loss of consciousness caused by prolonged breath holding, often preceded by hyperventilation, while swimming or diving in water 16 feet or less. From kids at a summer pool challenging each other to see who can hold their breath the longest to experienced swimmers going for distance underwater, death can occur without any warning. The reflexive drive to breathe is delayed and the swimmer or diver is susceptible to losing consciousness and dying whether near the top of the water or deeper.
Many unexplained deaths attributed to drowning may be from Shallow Water Blackout. Persons are left to ponder how an accomplished swimmer or diver could have drowned, even in a guarded pool. When consciousness is lost, there is often perceived normal movement with no obvious struggle. Victims’ lungs may fill with water and they can drown, or other causes associated with prolonged breath holding can result in death. Because oxygen going to the brain has been significantly depleted from breath holding, brain damage and death can occur much faster than in a regular drowning.
Recently, I watched children playing in the same pool where days before a talented young swimmer had been found dead. He would have wanted them to enjoy the water, but I wondered if they wouldn’t be safer if parents had warned them of the perils of SWB. While various aquatics organizations have done their part to educate constituents, the majority of people are still unaware of this silent and tragic phenomenon. I became convinced of the need to warn parents and as many others as possible.
As an aquatic safety advocate, it strikes me that Shallow Water Blackout should be higher on the educational priority list for parents, safety personnel, coaches, and others. Statistics are fuzzy, but it makes sense that SWB in children occurs less in darker and scarier open water than in clear and inviting swimming pools. However, the critical carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen (O2) imbalance of SWB can and does happen anywhere. As youngsters, my buddies and I often challenged each other to see who could swim the farthest underwater. We were fortunate. Victims have drowned trying to hold their breath the longest while onlookers unwittingly thought they had great staying power.
Instilling fear is not the answer, but a responsible distinction must be made between acceptable underwater practices and those that can lead to death. Holding one’s breath to retrieve a toy off the pool bottom or doing somersaults with friends in the water is not the culprit for Shallow Water Blackout. Some lifesaving maneuvers like the recovery of a submerged victim and certain competitive swimming and free diving training require underwater breath holding. These and other activities, even in the most experienced, must always be closely supervised by lifeguards, coaches, teammates, or others. Participants must be educated about Shallow Water Blackout and lifeguards informed about the nature of the activity so they can be extra vigilant.
Requiring pool signs to prohibit prolonged underwater breath holding, directing program managers and coaches to regularly inform swimmers of the dangers of Shallow Water Blackout, and mandating that lifeguards be notified when any underwater breath holding is required would be a good start, but perhaps parents may be the best defense against Shallow Water Blackout that can result in near death or death. Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) united to save lives by changing the world’s perception of drinking and driving, so too can parents save lives by understanding SWB and making it part of their child’s early education. With parental understanding and warning, children can safely enjoy swimming and diving and the wonders of the water.
About the Author
Dr. Samuel James Freas is currently the swimming and diving coach at Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU) and a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies. During his early years as a beach lifeguard, he helped save hundreds of lives at the Jersey Shore and later became an advocate for universal learn-to-swim and water-safety programs for children. As a coach, he has trained athletes to become world record holders, world and Olympic champions, both in the pool and in open water.
On March 9, 2012, Ivan Frederico Maciuniack, a competitive swimmer on the OBU team, was found dead in 12 feet of water during a lifeguarded open swim. Senseless tragedies such as this, presumed to be Shallow Water Blackout, can be prevented if parents and professionals alike take immediate action. The author wants you to be aware of Shallow Water Blackout and to caution children very early and often about this insidious killer.