A sunny holiday weekend should be a festive occasion. It means barbecues, beach days, time at the pool.
Inevitably, though, this time of year also means drownings — largely preventable tragedies that persist in 2019.
An 18-year-old’s life was cut short at Upper Mystic Lake in Medford on Monday. According to the district attorney’s office, the young man could not swim. The teen, a recent immigrant from Nepal who had just graduated from Medford High School, had been planning to attend UMass Amherst, where he would study math and biology.
It wasn’t the first drowning death in Massachusetts this year — just last month, a freshman at Clinton High School drowned in a pond — and if statistics hold up, it won’t be the last.
A disturbing number of children could be next: The USA Swimming Foundation found, in a 2017, study that 64 percent of African-American children, 45 percent of Hispanic children, and 40 percent of white children are at risk for drowning because they have no or limited swimming skills. Poverty compounds the problem: 79 percent of children from low income families have no or limited swimming ability.
Nationally, about two children age 14 and under drown every day on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Drowning is the second-biggest cause of
injury-related death for children, after car accidents. Many more children suffer nonfatal drownings, which can leave permanent, severe brain damage. The victims are overwhelmingly male, according to the CDC.
To the extent that the cost of swimming lessons deters parents, it can’t be repeated enough that free and discounted swim lessons are available from providers such as the City of Boston, the Boys and Girls Club, and the YMCA (details vary, so check the pool near you). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance, children over 1 year old can benefit from swim lessons.
Parents can play a bigger role than just packing kids off to swim lessons. The Swimming Foundation also found that children who swim with their family are 2.7 times more likely to be good swimmers. Schools, doctors, and municipalities also need to help get the word out about the dangers of drowning and the availability of lessons.
Children are going to get in the water on hot summer days, whether their parents like it or not. The question is whether they’ll be equipped with the skills to stay alive when they do. Drowning deaths look like isolated incidents, but they add up to a serious public health problem — and need to be treated that way.