Research Shows Some Black Kids At A Higher Risk Of Drowning

Jun 19, 2014

Drowning is the number one killer of children under the age of four.
Credit Wilson Sayre

Florida has the highest rate of drowning in the country and for those younger than 4, water is the No. 1 killer aside from birth defects. But the danger is not spread equally among all children.

Overall, black kids drown at a much higher rate than other children. But among the youngest group of kids — younger than school age — whites and Hispanics fare worse. It’s around the 4 or 5 years old when those tides turn and black kids drown at about three times the rate of other children.

Rates of fatal unintentional drowning among persons aged ≤29 years, by age and race/ethnicity. Data used is in the United States from 1999-2010.
Credit Julie Gilchrist / Center for Disease Control and Prevention

The theory is white and Hispanic children have more access to pools, which pose a danger at a young age. Over time though, the same pools become a resource that kids use to learn how to swim.

Julie Gilchrist, a medical epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta conducted research on 12 years of child drowning data across the country.

“The most distressing thing was the disparity, how extensive it was,” says Gilchrist. “It really does link back to a lack of basic swimming skills in certain communities in our population, and that's so preventable.”

Preventable by swim lessons. At the A.D. Barnes public pool, young Mara Rodriguez sports a turquoise polka-dot bathing suit.

“I like to jump in,” the 5-year-old says. “I like the touching the floor.”

Jaz Rodriguez and her daughter Mara participate in swim lessons at A.D. Barnes public pool.
Credit Wilson Sayre

Jaz Rodriguez, her mother, has brought Mara here for the past four summers to avoid anything bad from happening while having fun in the water elsewhere.

“It's the summer, we’re out on the beach all the time, we have a boat,” says Rodriguez.

But not every community has these kinds of lessons, not to mention a pool to teach them in.

Simon Codrington Jr., a member of the South Miami Community Advisory Committee, has been trying to get a pool in his small city since the 1970s. South Miami has a large black population and he sees swimming as a big threat to the community’s younger generations.

“At the root of it all is really socio-economic,” says Codrington.“ Kids who are living in public housing, growing up in a household where finance is a real problem, single-mother households -- opportunities for just having access to a pool are limited.”

Rates of fatal unintentional drowning in swimming pools and natural water settings among persons aged 1–28 years.
Credit Julie Gilchrist / Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Without a public pool to practice in, the canals that run through the city can end up being a danger for those who never learned basic swimming skills.

Right now, the closest public pool is A.D. Barnes, three miles away. That’s far, especially on public transportation.

But after almost four decades, Codrington is finally going to get his pool. It's set to open in South Miami next summer.

Walking around a muddy construction site, he points out some of the shortcomings of the design. This pool will be smaller than A.D. Barnes — fewer lap lanes and a lot shallower. This pool is six feet at it deepest versus 10 at A.D. Barnes.

He wishes the pool could accommodate more programs that just will not work: swim meets and lifeguarding lessons. He had envisioned a place more like an aquatics center, where the function wasn’t limited to basic swim lessons and leisure.

The next Michael Phelps may come out of a low-income, poor neighborhood.

Despite that, he is comforted knowing the pool will be a place where neighborhood kids — and adults — will learn how to swim, a start for growing a culture of swimming in the area.

Codrington says, who knows? “The next Michael Phelps may come out of a low-income, poor neighborhood.”