Even with summertime temperatures soaring to extremes, people are drawn to finding relief by splashing around in backyard or municipal pools, lakes, rivers and beaches. It is important to acknowledge that the joy found in such activity is often tempered by reports of heartbreaking loss of life by drowning.
As recently noted by The New York Times, we can expect even more such sad news this month. Deaths by drowning tend to surge during the month of July. It is pointed out that research shows that drownings rise “with every degree on a thermometer,” says Times reporter Emily Baumgaertner.
Though overall drowning deaths have decreased by one-third since 1990 and appeared to have plateaued, in 2020 they rose by 16.8%, according to Baumgaertner. There are more than 4,000 drowning deaths in the United States annually, amounting to almost 11 people a day. Nearly one-quarter of them are children. Drowning is the No. 1 killer of children ages 1 to 4 in this country, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As noted in a Washington Post story by reporter Linda Searing, “drownings of people 15 and older are more apt to occur in natural waters (lakes, rivers or oceans), while swimming pools are the site of most drownings of children under 5.”
William Ramos is an associate professor at Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington and the director of the school’s Aquatics Institute. “It’s time to go deeper than the sad statistics and answer the ‘why’ and the ‘how,'” he stresses to Baumgaertner.
“A U.N. resolution issued in 2021 and a World Health Assembly decision this year to accelerate action urged every member nation to prioritize the fight against childhood drownings. Both the W.H.O. and the American Academy of Pediatrics have implored the United States government to catch up,” writes Baumgaertner.
“Canada, U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — they all have a plan. We don’t,” says Ramos.
It also looks like we shouldn’t expect to see such a plan anytime soon. According to the Times report, “epidemiologists point to an array of factors that could make it increasingly difficult to close the gap, including shrinking recreation department budgets, a national lifeguard shortage and an era of distraction on pool decks, as parents juggle child supervision with laptops and cellphones when they work from home.” It is further noted that the National Institutes of Health has only recently “published a call for research proposals to examine drowning prevention, writing that ‘little is known’ about what intervention strategies work.”
This is but one of the threats to our well-being during the blazing summer days ahead. Heat stroke, considered by experts as the most dangerous form of heat-related illness, is a growing threat, reports Time magazine’s Haley Weiss.
According to Zachary Schlader, an associate professor of kinesiology at Indiana University and a specialist on thermal stress, during a heat stroke “the body can no longer regulate temperature. It’s not just being hot.”
Heat stroke is “marked by some level of central nervous system dysfunction. This type of physiological malfunction causes a massive body-wide inflammatory response that quickly places just about every organ system in danger,” reports Weiss. It also creates a public health quandary, “since there’s still no available treatment other than simply cooling victims down.” This lack of other treatments is in large measure what makes heat stroke so dangerous.
As an example of what this summer may have in store, it is pointed out that last year, Europe saw a record number of heat-related deaths. In a companion piece by Times reporter Alice Park, it is highlighted that, in a paper published in Nature Medicine, “researchers in Spain and France calculated that more than 61,000 deaths in Europe could be blamed on the heat during the summer of 2022, the hottest summer on record for the continent. … Most of these deaths occurred during a five-week heat wave from mid-July to mid-August.”
Reports Weiss, heat stroke generally comes on in one of two ways: exposure to extreme heat, or intense activity that heats the body to those same levels. “Younger and fitter people are generally more likely to get heat stroke from prolonged physical activity in already-hot conditions. … When it comes to treating heat stroke once it begins, rapid cooling is the only option,” says Schlader.
The gold standard, explains Schlader, is basically just an ice bath. “That is why heat stroke disproportionately kills those who live far from resources like hospitals and cooled public spaces,” he adds. “There is nothing helpful for a heat stroke that fits in a portable first-aid kit.”
According to Joan Ballester, professor at ISGlobal, a private research foundation in Barcelona, and lead author of the paper published in Nature Medicine, “Heat basically becomes an added risk factor for people with existing health problems, including heart and immune conditions. Heat acts as a stressor on those already precarious systems.”
“There are a few things to keep an eye out for if you’re out on a hot day,” says Weiss. “The clearest indicator of heat stroke is confusion and disorientation, caused by the ‘short-circuiting’ of the central nervous system.” If you think someone you are with is experiencing heat stroke, it’s important to seek treatment.
Explains Miles Marchand, a cardiology resident at the University of British Columbia, “Untreated, there is a high mortality rate.” According to some research, nearly 60% of victims suffer fatal organ failure within a few days. Heat stroke can come on so quickly that “the main warning signal should be the weather forecast,” says Marchand.