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Opinion Lots of children drown every summer. This is not inevitable.


It was supposed to be a day of summer fun for the Cohn family. In July 2007, Karen and Brian Cohn had recently welcomed their fourth child and moved into a new home. Their son Zachary, 6 years old, was swimming in their new pool. The Cohns had ensured their pool met the city’s safety codes for fencing and door alarms. Little did they know that the pool’s drain cover had come loose, exposing a powerful vacuum pump that, within seconds, trapped Zachary’s arm and held him underwater. By the time the Cohns shut off the pool’s power, Zachary had drowned.

More children ages 1 to 4 die of drowning than any cause except birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For children ages 1 through 14, drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional death, behind only car collisions.

Drowning rates have increased since the pandemic’s start. Children who missed out on swim lessons during the pandemic’s worst waves are getting into the water. Amid a summer of record-breaking temperatures, many families seek the nearest body of water. But a national lifeguard shortage has forced public pools, beaches and water parks to limit their hours or close altogether, so some families consider more dangerous alternatives.

Tragedies such as Zachary Cohn’s death are preventable. The Cohn family’s ZAC Foundation explains how. Young children in the water should be within one arm’s length of an adult at all times. At home, outdoor swimming pools should be ringed by a four-sided fence, with alarms on doors leading outside so children don’t wander to the pool undetected. Pool drains should be regularly inspected for broken or loose covers. Enroll children in swimming lessons, swim where lifeguards are present, and, in open water, set a good example by wearing a life jacket.

Local lawmakers should require proper fencing around pools, mandate life jackets in open water and add swim lessons to public school curriculums. Last year, the CDC received drowning prevention funding for the first time, a new resource that strapped state public safety agencies should tap. Amid the national lifeguard shortage, organizations that hire lifeguards, including city and state governments, should step up recruitment, build out training programs and increase lifeguard pay. California is considering a bill that would allow ocean lifeguards to work at public pools during the offseasons, while the YMCA is covering the cost of lifeguard certification. More than 100 researchers from government agencies and nonprofits are working on a National Water Safety Action Plan; California has a similar drowning prevention coalition. Other state and regional groups could do the same.

As a scorching summer comes to a close, and as families make their Labor Day plans, take the extra effort to stay safe. No family should have to endure what the Cohns have experienced.

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