Blog | Tuesday, July 3, 2012

It's not the chemicals in the water that are dangerous; it's the water

I'm always dismayed when people try to exaggerate the health risks of certain substances by calling them "chemicals."

"We have to worry about chemicals in apple juice," they'll warn, or "chemicals in plastic bottles." As anyone who's taken a chemistry class can tell you, "chemicals" is just an intimidating word for "stuff." Calling it a chemical doesn't tell you anything about what it is or how it affects people. Roses and clouds and rocket fuel and spaghetti are all made of chemicals, because they're made of stuff. Typically the chemicals that scaremongers are trying to warn us about are harmful only in concentrations millions of times higher than we're likely to face.

This unnecessary anxiety is even more pernicious because it takes our attention away from another chemical that is a major killer. This chemical is natural, ubiquitous in our environment, and responsible for thousands of deaths in the U.S. every year. This chemical is water. The same molecule that is essential to all life becomes life-threatening when it gets into our lungs.

Drowning is the second largest cause of fatal injury in children, after car accidents. Drowning kills more children ages 1 to 4 than any cause other than birth defects. In the U.S. there are over 3,500 fatal drownings annually, not counting boating accidents.

This week the New York Times published an essential article covering critical aspects of drowning prevention. I urge you to read it. The New England Journal of Medicine also reviewed the topic a few weeks ago. Though most of the NEJM article is written for physicians, the last section on prevention (Table 3) is a useful guide for the general public.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a very practical page on water safety. Water safety involves a combination of education, supervision, and sensible technology. Children in a body of water should be supervised by an adult within arm's length ("touch supervision"). Children should be taught to swim. (A few thousand years before the CDC, this was mandated by the Talmud.) Swimmers should not enter the water after consuming alcohol. All boaters should wear life jackets. All pools should be completely fenced from the house and yard. The CDC page has many other wise recommendations.

So have a terrific summer safely. And be careful around water. It's a pretty nasty chemical.

Learn more:
Respect for Water Cuts Risk of Drowning (The Well, the New York Times' health blog)
Drowning, (New England Journal of Medicine, Current Concepts review article, free without a subscription) See especially Table 3. Guidelines for Prevention of Drowning
Drowning Facts (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000. Holding privileges at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he is also an assistant clinical professor at UCLA's Department of Medicine. This post originally appeared at his blog.