Whether it’s boating on your favorite reservoir or cooling off in a swimming pool, water park, lake, river or stream, water is a great way to beat the summer heat. We’re so intent on having fun, however, that we don’t always think about the dangers of water — but we should.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, Idaho was ranked 15th highest in the nation for the number of drowning deaths in 2013 (the most current year for which data are available).
Idaho is unique in that most drownings take place in natural waterways such as rivers, lakes and streams. These waters tend to be quite cold — even during summer months — and can very quickly bring on hypothermia, which will weaken even the strongest of swimmers. From 2004 to 2013, 37 percent of drownings in Idaho were in rivers, followed by lakes at 13 percent and canals at 10 percent. Swimming pools account for just less than 6 percent.
To help you and your family enjoy the water and stay safe this summer, the Idaho Division of Public Health has provided some important safety tips on drowning prevention.
Supervise when in or around water. Designate a responsible adult to watch young children swimming or playing in or around water. Because drowning occurs quickly and quietly, adults should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, playing cards, talking on the phone or texting) while supervising children, even if lifeguards are present.
Use the buddy system. Always swim with a buddy. Select swimming sites that have lifeguards when possible.
Learn to swim. Formal swimming lessons can protect young children from drowning. But even when children have had formal swimming lessons, it’s still very important to have constant, careful supervision when children are in the water, and barriers like fences to prevent unsupervised access.
Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). In the time it takes for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could save someone’s life.
Wear a life jacket. People tend to drown in silence and without attracting attention. Their struggle to breathe and stay afloat rarely enables them to wave their arms or call for help. Also, 75 percent of boating fatalities could have been prevented if the victim had been wearing a life jacket.
Know the water. Idaho’s lakes and rivers can be cold enough to cause hypothermia, even in the summer and even among the strongest swimmers. Never swim in an irrigation canal or ditch; these waters flow swiftly, and once a person is in the water, it is extremely difficult to get out. Avoid swimming or boating in high running water, check water conditions, never dive or jump into unfamiliar or shallow water, and swim only in designated areas.
Avoid alcohol. Avoid drinking alcohol before or during swimming, boating or water skiing. Do not drink alcohol while supervising children.
Know the local weather conditions and forecast before swimming or boating. Strong winds and thunderstorms with lightning strikes are dangerous.
Recreational water illness
Recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are caused by germs in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, splash parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers and oceans. These germs can make you sick when you swallow, breathe in the mist from or have contact with water that is contaminated with the germs.
Recreational water illnesses can also be caused by chemicals in the water or chemicals that evaporate from the water and cause indoor air quality problems. The most commonly reported illness associated with recreational water is diarrhea. In the last few years, Idaho has experienced outbreaks of RWI diarrheal illness from Cryptosporidium (“Crypto”), Giardia, norovirus, and E. coli 0157:H7. Outbreaks of skin infections caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas in hot tubs and “swimmer’s itch” from bird parasites in natural bodies of water also have been reported.
There are easy and effective steps that everyone can take to make sure they stay healthy while enjoying the water this summer.
Keep the pee, poop, sweat and dirt out of the water! Swimmers and splash park users who are sick with diarrhea — or who have been sick in the last two weeks — risk contaminating pool and splash park water with germs. Help keep yourself and others healthy by using these tips:
• Stay out of the water if you have diarrhea.
• Shower before you get in the water.
• Wash your hands after swimming or playing in water.
• Don’t pee or poop in the water.
• Don’t swallow the water.
Every hour — everyone out! Swim diapers and swim pants are not a substitute for frequent diaper changing and bathroom breaks. Swim diapers and swim pants should be checked frequently and changed away from the poolside or water area.
• Take kids on bathroom breaks.
• Check diapers, and change them in a bathroom or diaper-changing area — not poolside — to keep germs away from the pool.
• Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
Check the free chlorine level and pH before getting into the water. Contrary to popular belief, chlorine does not kill all germs instantly. Crypto is tolerant to chlorine, but keeping chlorine at the recommended level is essential to maintaining water safety.
Pools: Proper free chlorine level — 1–3 mg/L or parts per million (ppm) — and pH (7.2–7.8) maximize germ-killing power.
Hot tubs and spas: Proper disinfectant level — chlorine (2–4 parts per million or ppm) or bromine (4–6 ppm) and pH (7.2–7.8) — maximize germ-killing power.
Most superstores, hardware stores and pool-supply stores sell pool test strips. You can also get test strips for free at the Water Quality and Health Council (WQHC) Healthy Pools page at www.healthypools.org.
Avoid water that has been posted unsafe.
Bodies of water might be posted unsafe for many reasons, such as high E. coli levels, swimmer’s itch or harmful algal blooms.
Do not swim in areas where signs have been posted warning of unsafe water.
If you do go in the water, towel dry or shower immediately after leaving the water.
Do not feed birds in areas where people are swimming.
Avoid contact with water that has blue-green algae in it — this can look like scum or mats or paint floating on the water. See rwi.dhw.idaho.gov for more information.
So many of us love living in Idaho for all of its recreational opportunities. But please be smart about your fun. Know the risks of playing in the water and take precautions to reduce them. (And don’t forget your sunscreen!)
Elke Shaw-Tulloch, master of health sciences, is the state health officer and Division of Public Health administrator with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Find out more about Department of Health and Welfare services at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.