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A Clear & Present Danger

For children 5 and younger, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death, and California leads the nation.

June 15, 1997|DAN GORDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Dan Gordon is a Culver City freelance writer

Mary Glass had an idyllic life: a happy marriage, four children, a senior position with a mortgage company and a beautiful Mission Viejo home with a pool and spa in the backyard.

But it changed on one Sunday afternoon in April 1991.

Glass was upstairs putting away laundry while her 20-month-old son, Crissy, tagged along. Downstairs and in back, friends and relatives were preparing for a barbecue.

Crissy wanted to join the group, so Glass watched as her son turned on his stomach and slid down the stairs feet first. She would follow in a minute.

After filling one more drawer, Glass headed downstairs before learning her other son needed a fresh shirt. She got it, then checked for Crissy.

When he wasn't immediately visible, she called outside to her husband, who was barbecuing near the pool. As their eyes scanned the yard, they were stunned by a horrible sight: their son's body at the bottom of the spa.

About 300 children ages 1 to 5 die each year in home swimming pools and spas in the United States, and California, with 1.1 million pools and 1.2 million spas, leads the way.

Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for California children 5 and younger.

In 1995, the most recent year for which statewide statistics are available, 59 children 5 and younger drowned.

In Los Angeles and Orange counties last year, 28 children drowned in pools and spas. And for every drowning victim, there is a person who suffers permanent brain damage after nearly drowning.

And yet, the majority of homeowners fail to take precautions--including the installation of four-sided fences, safety pool covers and alarms on doors leading to the pool--that could prevent the tragedies.

"The pool environment lures people into a sense of security because it's at home, where we tend to let our guard down," said Capt. Scott Brown, chief spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority.

In partnership with Children's Hospital of Orange County, the fire authority is sponsoring a public education campaign in response to what Brown calls an "epidemic" of Orange County drownings in 1996 (12 children died; that's about how many are in a preschool class, Brown noted).

Brown and others in the drowning-prevention field are trying to dispel several common myths:

* The first is that most toddler drownings occur when the child is playing in or near the pool, unsupervised.

Actually, in most cases the child was last seen doing something safe, like napping, watching TV or playing inside.

"These children are curious and learning new things everyday," said Mary Marlin, community education manager for Children's Hospital of Orange County. "Their job is to explore, and unfortunately they are not verbal about their exploration, and they aren't necessarily aware that the pool is a hazard."

* Another common misconception is that the drowning child will be heard, that he will splash, sputter or scream.

Typically, because small children are top heavy, they go in head first and don't resurface.

To illustrate the point in her presentations to parents, Marlin plays what she announces to be a tape recording of a small child drowning. The tape is silent.

Given the myths, pool-safety activists cringe when they hear pool owners say that they'll simply supervise their children, the implication being that drowning happens only to those who don't.

After her son's death, Mary Glass began speaking before groups of parents at every possible opportunity in an effort to convince them that supervision is not enough.

"If you think you're the best parent in the world, you're the one I'm talking to," said Glass, who insists that she had always been extremely cautious, so cautious that she had never left her young children with a baby-sitter.

"Parents whose children drown or nearly drown are not bad parents," said Billie Weiss, director of the injury and violence prevention program for the Los Angeles County Department of Health. "In point of fact, no one can supervise a child 24 hours a day."

But what they can do, Weiss said, is install barriers, often referred to as "layers of protection," between the child and the pool. When used properly, these barriers will either prevent children from straying into a pool or buy time until they are discovered en route.

"There is no better way to stop a drowning," Marlin said.

The barrier widely viewed as the most effective is the four-sided fence.

Since most backyards already are fenced on three sides, this usually means adding one side to isolate the pool from the house. The fence should be at least five feet high, designed and built to be unclimbable by a toddler, with a gate that opens outward and automatically latches closed.

A second barrier is a pool cover. Most experts recommend automatic covers, because the manual devices are more difficult to maneuver and therefore less likely to be used each time the pool is unoccupied.

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