Drowning deaths rising in certain provinces. How to stay water-safe this summer

Click to play video: 'Quebec study sheds light on frequency, severity of drownings among children'
Quebec study sheds light on frequency, severity of drownings among children
WATCH: Quebec study sheds light on frequency, severity of drownings among children – May 23, 2024

As people across Canada prepare their pools for the summer and others head to cabins to swim in lakes, experts warn to stay water-safe. Drowning rates spike in the summer, and incidents can happen silently and within seconds.

The caution comes after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on May 14 released a report stating that drowning deaths are on the rise in the country, following decades of decline. The report found that more than 4,500 people died due to drowning each year from 2020 to 2022, 500 more per year compared with 2019.

Although Canada does not have national statistics for the same years as the U.S., provincial data shows similar trends, especially in Ontario.

“In our most recent drowning report it shows the highest number of drownings that we have seen in over 15 years, and that’s actually as far as our digital records go back,” Stephanie Bakalar, corporate communications manager for the Lifesaving Society Ontario, told Global News.

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“We have not seen a spike like this, in years.”

The Lifesaving Society’s 2024 Ontario Drowning Report examined data from 2016 to 2020 and found that 2020 had the highest number of drowning deaths, with 211 fatalities.

Click to play video: 'Mother shares her tragic loss after teenage son drowns'
Mother shares her tragic loss after teenage son drowns

In British Columbia, drowning deaths increased to 87 in 2020 from 68 in 2019, according to data from the BC Coroners Service. In 2022, there were 86 drowning deaths in the province, up from the annual average of 76.

In Manitoba, drowning rates were higher in 2020 (24 deaths) and 2021 (25 deaths) compared with 2019 (19 deaths). Similarly, in Saskatchewan, there were 19 drowning deaths in 2019, which increased to 29 in 2020 and 32 in 2021.

In Canada, drownings can happen year-round, but the majority of cases (73 per cent) occurred during warmer months (May through September), according to Health Canada.

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The Canadian Drowning Prevention Coalition reports that more than 400 Canadians die from drowning annually. Not only is drowning preventable, but it’s also “a substantial cause of morbidity and mortality” in the country and it is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide.

“We unfortunately are seeing the same risk factors taking place year after year after year. And we are just finding (people) are not heeding the advice that we’re giving out. We’re giving them the same prevention messages. And unfortunately, those prevention messages are not being taken up by the people who need to take them to heart,” Bakalar said.

Why are drowning rates up?

The Lifesaving Society saw a spike in drowning rates amid the pandemic in 2020, across the country, Bakalar said.

While it might be premature to fully explain the increase in drowning rates, she suspects that after enduring numerous lockdowns, many people stayed indoors for extended periods. When restrictions were lifted, there was a pent-up desire to enjoy the outdoors and embrace fresh air, often while adhering to encouraged social distancing measures.

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“That was your opportunity to sort of get out of your home. So we did see a lot more people heading to beaches, heading up north to cottages if they could and doing those outdoor activities,” she said.

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“The more people who are swimming, obviously, the more risk. And there could be an increase in drowning, which is what we saw, an increase in drowning in 2020. We don’t have numbers yet for 2021 and beyond. But we will see in the coming in the coming year.”

Who is most at risk of drowning?

Among men aged 35 to 49, swimming is the leading activity involved in fatal incidents, closely followed by boating activities such as powerboating, fishing and canoeing, according to national data from the Lifesaving Society.

Drowning incidents most frequently happen among males (77 per cent), in lakes and ponds (48 per cent) and during aquatic activities such as swimming and wading (30 per cent). The latest data revealed that in 75 per cent of these cases, life-jackets were not used, 44 per cent involved alcohol and 56 per cent of the victims were alone when swimming.

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“The biggest (risk factor) we’ve seen is not wearing life-jackets while boating. It is also true for swimming. People are not wearing life-jackets when they’re participating in aquatic activities, and often if they had been wearing a life-jacket, they would not have drowned,” Bakalar said.

Another huge risk factor for drowning, she said, is alcohol and drug consumption.

Click to play video: 'OPP warn boaters about driving impaired, being prepared in case of emergencies'
OPP warn boaters about driving impaired, being prepared in case of emergencies

“It is very prevalent in upper teens through to the 30s, 40s, even well into your 60s and 70s. People are often consuming alcohol or intoxicated with drugs when they drown. Being intoxicated is going to reduce your ability to swim and impact your ability to make good choices,” she warned.

Children, especially those under the age of five, are also at high risk of drowning.

Ninety-seven per cent of drowning deaths in children under the age of five are due to a lack of supervision, Bakalar said.

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“You could be absent or distracted, could even be turning to put sunscreen on another child and you’ve taken your eyes off someone in the water, even for a matter of seconds. We want everyone to remember that drowning is fast and silent. You’re not going to hear a lot of splashing, you’re not going to hear a lot of screaming for help once your little one slips under the water,” she stressed.

Dr. Hussein Wissanji, a pediatric surgeon at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, said he reads about drowning rates in the news each year. However, as a doctor, he finds that these statistics don’t match what he and his colleagues observe in the hospital.

“There is a discrepancy,” he told Global News, adding that he wanted to focus on finding specific data for Quebec regarding how many children experience drowning or near-drowning incidents during the summer months.

In a study to be presented in September at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, Wissanji stated that the research shows an average of one child per day is admitted to the emergency room for drowning or near-drowning incidents in Quebec during the summer months.

Click to play video: '‘Water is unpredictable’: Lifesaving Society stresses safety ahead of long weekend'
‘Water is unpredictable’: Lifesaving Society stresses safety ahead of long weekend

He is sharing the results now in hopes of preventing deaths this summer.

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“I find that number high. But as a parent, I find that number concerning enough for me to increase my awareness around water my children,” he told Global News.

The study looked at all children’s drowning deaths, ER visits or hospital admissions between 2017 and 2021 in the province. It found there were around 92 drowning or near-drowning events on average in June, July and August, he said — corresponding to about one per day.

The researchers also found that children between the ages of one and four are most at risk, particularly in pools without proper fencing, Wissanji said.

Older children, in contrast, are more likely to have drowning-related accidents in lakes or rivers. In all cases, drowning-related hospitalizations are more likely to occur on weekends.

Although the data is from Quebec, he said the messaging applies across Canada.

“If I was hearing this report from Ontario, I wouldn’t need to have much more information just to understand that I have to be careful, even if my kid is not in Quebec,” he said. “I would be shocked that this ratio was drastically different in other provinces.”

How to stay water-safe

Because drowning is a preventable tragedy, experts like Bakalar say there are many ways to stay safe and educated about swimming.

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The Lifesaving Society suggests parents adopt multiple layers of protection while supervising their kids around a pool or lake. This involves constant supervision, ensuring children wear life-jackets, keeping a cellphone readily available for emergencies and even having someone around who is a strong swimmer with first aid training.

Life-jackets, personal flotation devices (PFDs) and puddle jumpers are all great options to enhance water safety for children and adults, provided they are approved by Transport Canada or the Canadian Coast Guard (which you can usually find on the inside of the item).

The Lifesaving Society does not approve water wings.

Bakalar also recommends that all adults and children wear life-jackets when boating, as 80 per cent of boaters who drowned were not wearing a PFD or life-jacket at the time of the incident.

Click to play video: 'The importance of water skills and safety'
The importance of water skills and safety

Another way Canadians can stay water-safe is by learning how to swim. Taking swimming lessons is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself in and around water, Bakalar said.

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“Swimming lessons are critically important to drowning prevention. It is the best way to keep your kids safe around the water, and give them a good understanding of what is a good choice around the water and what isn’t,” she said.

She understands that swimming lessons can be a financial burden for some families, but advocates for families to contact their local pool or YMCA as many programs will offer discounted rates for those in need.

Wissanji is also urging Canadians to prioritize water safety this summer and recognize the importance of active supervision when children are around pools and lakes.

“I don’t want to say to the family, stop going into the water,” he said. “It’s a wonderful activity, we should really embrace it. But if you offer proper surveillance, you will be able to prevent drowning events. So that’s really the message.”

— with files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Kalina Laframboise 

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