Just in time for the hot summer months, a new study warns parents that portable pools are not without their risks.
The report, published in the journal Pediatrics, evaluated the number of fatal and nonfatal submersions by children under 12 years old in portable pools. Using data from the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission for the years 2001 and 2009, the researchers found that 209 children drowned in portable pools during that time. Thirty-five children had accidents, but survived.
"Over the last decade, we've seen an increase in the number of people who use portable pools, and in many cases, it's our impression that parents may not be aware of their risks," said Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Injury Research and Policy Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and lead author of the study.
Seventy-three percent of the accidents happened in the child's own yard, and nearly all of them (94 percent) involved children younger than 5 years old.
Smith said 80 percent of these water accidents occur during the summer months. A child dies every five days because of drowning in a portable pool.
"Drowning is different than other injuries," said Smith. "In many other injuries, kids get a second chance. When they fall on the playground, they may break their arm, but they get a second chance. Drowning outcomes can be so severe that primary prevention is absolutely essential because it's so quick and final."
These days, most in-ground pools have safety features, including pool covers, detachable ladders, alarms and four-wall fencing. Most owners must agree to certain local ordinances before and after they've installed a pool.
But portable pools are much cheaper than in-ground, and can cost as little as $50 at local toy or hardware stores. If someone wanted to install a fence, the process would likely be more expensive than the pool itself.
"Safety features should be included at the point of sale," said Smith. "When you buy a car, you don't go and buy the seat belt somewhere else. It should be the same case here."
The study noted a rapid spike in water accidents from 2001 to 2005 before they leveled off from 2005 to 2009. Experts said that portable pool companies were beginning to market their items at that time.
"As remarked in the study, we saw a big increase about five years ago, when these portable inflatable pools became available and were heavily marketed," said Dr. Anne Brayer, associate professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at University of Rochester School of Medicine. "They are quite inexpensive and, hence, popular. But parents can easily underestimate the risks and need for safety precautions."
"Parents should really think long and hard about having such a pool with toddlers," said Brayer.
While she didn't advise against the pools, she warned that it's essential to practice vigilance and follow safety measures.
"Sprinklers or community pools are a safer, fun way to stay cool," she said.
Mike Shorr, owner of Legacy Portable Pools, said that in-ground pools had recently come under fire for drains whose suction is so strong they can entrap a person. Most portable pools do not have drains, and Shorr said the industry continually tried to include new safety features, including detachable fences and water-depth variations that can be adjusted as the child grows.
"Really, it's an issue that the kid needs to be supervised at all times in any kind of pool," said Shorr. "Most of these accidents come down to parental negligence."
Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas, pediatrician and author of the book "Baby 411," also reiterated that it's a child giver's responsibility to keep swimmers safe.
"Make sure a child does not have unrestricted access to the pool," said Brown, who said that drowning can occur in less than 12 inches of water. "And make sure an adult is always watching, not distracted and sitting out poolside talking on the phone or with friends, [but] truly being a water guardian."
Smith added that parents with young children should take supervision one step further to include "touch supervision" in which someone can reach out and touch the child at all times.
At any rate, Smith said, he hoped the study's findings would send a message to manufacturers to update and improve the available safety features.
"These are popular consumer products used with many families, so one thing we'd really like them to do is develop marketing for affordable prevention devices for these pools," said Smith. "We'll leave it to the industry to figure out the best designs and tools."