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Experts urge adults to be aware of drowning danger

| Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

As young children splash in pools this summer, doctors and researchers urge adults to be aware of the often-silent danger they face.

“When you picture drowning, you picture something dramatic with flailing,” said Jennifer Fiddner, epidemiology research associate with the Allegheny County Health Department. “Usually, drownings are silent. You have to be on the lookout.”

Fiddner chairs the health department's Child Death Review Team, which investigated nine drownings between 2000 and 2012.

“In some of the cases, there were adults nearby who were preoccupied with something else,” Fiddner said. “You're looking for splashing and just not realizing that drowning can be silent.”

Three adults accidentally drowned this year, including Tarentum fisherman Donald Duncan, 67, in the Allegheny River on June 3, according to records from the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office. Eight people drowned in 2011, the office said.

Nationally, for each drowning, about five serious injuries result from near-drownings, said Anthony Fabio, faculty member with the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health and director of the consortium of injury research and community action.

“It's probably a bigger problem,” Fabio said. “One of the things we're missing is a good data system to do a good count.”

Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Blake Metzger, 2, died on June 24 when relatives found him in an above-ground pool in Canonsburg. Two weeks before, a boy nearly drowned in The Club Sports & Health on Racquet Lane in Monroeville.

“It's something parents need to remember — water and small children don't mix,” said Dr. Barbara A. Gaines, director of trauma and injury prevention with Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville.

Hospital staff handled nine drownings or near-drownings this year, and 26 cases last year. Children can die or suffer brain damage in fewer than six minutes in water, Gaines said.

One of the biggest issues is lack of supervision, she said.

“The idea that it's a community process and everyone will pay attention sometimes means no one will pay attention,” Gaines said.

She recommends designating an adult whose only task is to supervise the children during pool time.

“They're not going to read a magazine, or chat, or talk on the phone,” Gaines said. “They're just going to watch the kids.”

Teenagers at pool parties who might not be strong swimmers can face danger, too, she said: “They're too embarrassed to say they can't swim. There's pressure to get into water and they may not have the ability to get themselves out.”

Gaines recommends that homeowners with pools learn CPR, keep a charged cellphone nearby in case an emergency happens and control access to the pool with a toddler-proof barrier.

“The idea is not to scare people, but when there's young children and water, there needs to be an adult to watch the kids,” Gaines said.

Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or

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