Are Portable Pools Really As Risky As We’re Being Told?

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Yesterday I asked my mother if she thought I should get my girls a water table or a portable pool for the backyard. “Don’t get a pool!” she exclaimed. “The news says too many kids drown in them.”

Having had family friends whose toddler suffered a serious injury in a pool, I’ve always been a bit crazed about water safety. Paranoid, even. I don’t let my children out of site in the bathtub or if I do step literally around the corner to get a towel, I make them talk to me so I know they’re not underwater. It’s a bit ridiculous, yes. But these injuries and deaths do happen. One of my dear friends lost her niece — a good swimmer — at a local pool with a lifeguard on duty. The family is still shellshocked years later.

I looked up the news story. CBS’ headline is “Drowning risk high for kids in portable pools.”

What does that even mean? From my perspective, I’m looking to avoid any water deaths for my children. What is the “just right” amount of risk for portable pools, I wonder?

CBS explains that the lead author of a new study says “in this country every summer, a child dies every five days from drowning in a portable pool.”

He apparently reviewed info from the Consumer Product Safety Commission to show that between 2001 and 2009 there were 244 “incidents” and 209 deaths involving portable pools. Most incidents involved kids under five years old and three-quarters of them happened in the kid’s own back yard. That averages out to just over 23 deaths a year. Which is actually much fewer than I would have guessed.

OK, so how does this compare with other drowning deaths? I went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site and found out a bunch of random other facts, such as that an average of ten people, including two to three children, die every day from drowning. It’s the sixth leading cause of unintentional injury death for people of all ages, and the second leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 14 years.

In 2007, there were 3,443 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) in the United States. An additional 496 people died from drowning in boating-related incidents. More than one in five people who die from drowning are children. And for every child who dies from drowning, another four receive emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries.

So again I wonder by what standard we’re saying the portable pool death risk is “high.” How many kids die in other pools? How many die in the ocean? Lakes? Canals? Ponds? Bathtubs? How many die after eating cheese doodles? How many choke on pretzels? How many die from food poisoning at the 4th of July picnic? How many die from sunburns? How many die from rattlesnake bites? You get the idea.

The study shows that “four out of ten times, parents were actually supervising but let their guard down for a few minutes.” What does that even mean? I mean, I know how quickly these accidents can happen. It takes very little time for a toddler to sneak out an unlocked screen door and into a pool or whatever. But letting your guard down for a few minutes does not equal supervising.

The author of the study then tells us about what he hopes to provoke:

He hopes this study spurs more interest in protective devices that can be installed, although he adds that “for many owners the devices cost more than the pools themselves. We really need to have the manufacturers step in to see if they make effective and affordable protection products.”

Was this study funded by trial lawyers? No, really, was it? Blaming manufacturers for these accidents is ridiculous.

I don’t know if the fault is with the author of this CBS piece or what, but this fits perfectly into the “scaremongering” model of journalism designed to feed off of and stimulate parental fears.

Yes, water can be lethal. This is why nearly 4,000 died from drowning in 2007. Yes, parents need to be careful. But telling them to avoid portable pools is silly. Life is full of risks. We may wish to control everything our children encounter so as to avoid any chance for harm, but that’s impossible. Better to give parents valuable information about pool safety than run shoddy stories such as this.