As Memorial Day weekend arrives, experts are reminding holiday celebrants that alcohol consumption is one of the largest and most preventable factors in drowning deaths.
Last year, Texas had one of the deadliest Memorial Day weekends on record with seven drownings and four boating-related deaths.
Texas state Parks and Wildlife Capt. Tony Norton told The Dallas Morning News each of the deaths could have been prevented by people wearing lifejackets or practicing responsible alcohol consumption.
“With any kind of alcohol, the first thing that goes is judgment,” Norton said. “So if you are impaired, you may do things you normally wouldn’t do.”
Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer in the United States and May is National Water Safety Month.
Lisa S. Grepps, spokeswoman for the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals, said safety in and around water should be a priority, especially if your event or party involves alcohol.
“One easy tip for entertaining is to plan your event so the swimming comes before the drinking,” she said. “The effects of alcohol are a major contributor to all other pool and hot tub accidents.”
With an average of more than 3,500 fatal drownings annually in the United States, officials across the nation are urging people to be responsible with their alcohol consumption during the holiday season.
Studies on alcohol and water safety have shown people with a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent are at about a 10 times higher risk of dying while boating compared to people who don’t drink on the water.
At 0.10, a person’s balance, vision, and reaction time are impaired, critical elements in preventing or responding to accidents. The level is slightly above the legal drinking limit for driving of 0.08 percent.
The CDC reports that alcohol is involved in 70 percent of deaths related to water recreation. It’s also linked to a quarter of emergency room visits for drowning and about 20 percent of boating deaths.
Alcohol consumption not only affects the person drinking but children as well. The CDC recommends parents supervising children do not consume alcohol as its effects can prevent someone from responding in a time of crisis.
Children under the age of 4 and males of all ages are particularly at risk. Young African-Americans, specifically children ages 11 and 12, are 10 times more at risk of a drowning death than children of the same age, according to the
“In the time it takes you to run inside to answer a phone or take something out of the oven, a child can drown. Never leave children alone while they’re swimming. Not even a minute,” Grepps said. “If you are entertaining, assign an adult to 15-minute intervals to be ‘the water watcher.’ Everyone will have an enjoyable time and be safe.”
The dangers associated with alcohol include diminished balance, coordination, and judgement. Sun exposure and heat only make things worse.
According to Surf Life Saving Australia, a water safety organization, alcohol affects the body in several ways that can increase the dangers of water. These include:
- disturbing the fluid in the inner ear that can led to disorientation
- making breathing more difficult by creating spasms of the vocal chords
- contributing to the likelihood of hypothermia by increasing blood flow to the arms and legs, pulling heat away from vital organs
- depressesing the senses and impairing reaction time
- distorting perception and risk and a person’s ability, putting them in potentially dangerous situations they cannot easily get out of
Risk perception is particularly dangerous while swimming in open water. This includes jumping off of objects into water, misjudging distances, and becoming disorientated in rip currents.
“The use of alcohol or drugs does not mix with pool activities. They can ‘slow you down’ because they affect the part of the brain that exercises restraint and control,” Grepps said. “Alcohol can instill false courage or bravado leading people to try things they normally would not do such as horseplay or swimming and diving competitions.”
Even drinking near water, such as a pool, can cause a person to slip or fall into the water. Many cases of alcohol-related drownings involve someone hitting their head and becoming incapacitated in water.
Here are some tips from the American Red Cross for staying safe in the water this summer:
- Avoid alcohol around water.
- Swim only in designated areas.
- Swim with a buddy.
- Never leave a child unsupervised in or around water.
- Wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vest on boats.
- If you can’t swim, stay out of water that goes above your head.
- Take swimming lessons to get better at swimming.