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Booze and Boats a Bad Mix

CDC study finds alcohol involved in 60 percent of drownings

FRIDAY, May 25, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If a beer on your boat this Memorial Day weekend is your idea of a good time, a new study may prompt you to think again and to learn how to wear a life preserver.

Three out of 10 drownings in Louisiana in 1998 took place while people were on boats, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports today, and 60 percent of all drownings were associated with drug or alcohol use.

None of the people who drowned while on or near a boat wore personal flotation devices correctly, the agency adds.

Of the 137 drownings in the state, 115 -- 84 percent -- were males, the report says. The highest rate of drowning was among persons between the age of 15 and 35, while children under 4 years of age accounted for 10 percent of the deaths.

"This is not at all unusual in Louisiana, which is consistently one of the top five states in drowning rates," says Megan Davies, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in Atlanta. "There's a lot of water in Louisiana, and most of the people who drowned in 1998 drowned in any one of the state's numerous rivers, lakes, streams, bays, bayous or ponds. A little factoid about Louisiana is that they have more than 4 million acres of water, all of it open to boating."

Sifting through public health records, death certificates, coroners reports, and investigations by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the CDC also found: drowning rates among African-Americans were more than twice that of whites; the median age of those drowned was 32; and unintentional accidents were the cause of 122 drownings, suicide accounted for seven, and 12 were work-related.

Alcohol testing showed that 43 of the drowning victims over the age of 13 tested positive for either alcohol or illicit drugs or both.

The data appear in the May 25 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a CDC publication.

"What these high numbers show is that the people are not really taking the kind of precautions recommended to prevent drowning," Davies says. "Specifically, for adults, one should avoid consumption of alcohol or drugs when you're in and around water, and boaters should be wearing personal flotation devices at all times."

"It's too late, once you've fallen out of a boat or the boat has capsized unexpectedly, to put on a flotation device," she advises.

Nineteen of the drownings occurred in a swimming pool, Davies says, and 11 involved children under the age of 14.

"When children are in water or playing near water, what's needed is constant adult supervision, [someone] physically present watching the child at all times," Davies says. "And swimming pools need to be fenced in, so kids can't get in unsupervised."

In 1998, 4,406 Americans drowned, including 1,003 children younger than 15 years old, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention. Drowning is the second-leading cause of injury-related death for children younger than 14, and men account for 81 percent of all drowning deaths in the country.

The data underscores the lesson Americans need to learn, says the U.S. Coast Guard.

"This is exactly what we've been trying to tell people," says Jack Odell, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C. "People need to understand that if you have an accident on the ground, you're not going to sink -- but in the water, you're going right down to the bottom. A life preserver can make all the difference in the world."

There's not much difference between a highway and the water anymore, Odell says. "The horsepower on boats have grown, which means speed becomes a factor. More people can afford boats, and have boats, more than at any other time in history. So this means we have a lot of congestion.

"That congestion requires you do everything safely," Odell continues. "And drinking and doing drugs is not safe."

Alcohol's effects are magnified on the water, Odell says. "Water speeds up the effects of alcohol. Vibration is a contributing factor. And the heat, the air, the sun, tends to dehydrate you more, which make alcohol's effects hit you faster."

Boats are full of distractions, Odell adds. "There's fuel lines and electrical wires, and with passengers who are intoxicated, they can be a greater distraction to the operator than what's going on on the water."

"It only takes a second," he says.

What To Do

For more information on ways to prevent accidental drowning, see the National Center for Injury Prevention. And check out this site to learn about Boating Safety.

Read other HealthDay stories about water safety.

SOURCES: Interviews with Megan Davies, medical epidemiologist, National Center for Injury Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Ga.; Jack Odell, spokesman, U.S. Coast Guard, Washington, D.C.; May 25, 2001, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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