Saturday, August 26, 2006

NYTimes exclusive: Water is a drowning hazard! (and math is hard!)

HONOLULU, Aug. 25 — The blue waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands may be irresistible, to tourists and residents alike, but swimming there — or surfing, snorkeling, diving or kayaking — can be deadly. And not just for the reason that seizes the imagination.

What? The reason that seizes my imagination is that the ocean has a pretty high water content, not to mention rip tides and such.

While it is the infrequent shark attacks that make the headlines, (Oh, right. Jaws. Okay, carry on.) drowning claims far more lives in Hawaii, where coastlines of sand, coral reef and lava rock create shorebreaks and currents that cause many swimmers to encounter peril entirely unexpected. Indeed, most of the victims are adults who thought they were good swimmers.

(Okay, I can live with "many," though "entirely unexpected" gives me a slight case of the collywobbles. But could we get a source for that last statistic -- drowning rates among adults who self-rated their swimming ability as "good"?)

“The waters at many beaches are deceptively beautiful,” said Dr. Chiyome Fukino, the state health director. “Even if you know how to swim, if you get into nasty surf, if you’re ill or injured, your chances of drowning are increased.”

Seventy-one people drowned in Hawaii in 2004, 58 of them in the ocean. The toll was the highest here in 15 years, but then was eclipsed by last year’s total of 77.

It is not just the millions of tourists who are at risk. Nearly half of all drowning victims are residents, a statistic that gives Hawaii an exceptionally high per-capita rate. The state’s Department of Health reports that from 1999 to 2003, 9.7 people drowned for every 100,000 residents, more than double the national rate of 4.7. That made the state’s rate for the period second only to that of Alaska, where fishing accidents account for a large share of drownings.

Let's go back to the "half of them are residents" part. Is she saying that the 9.7 per 100,000 stat is based only on dead residents? If so, why doesn't it say "9.7 Hawaiians drowned ... "

A look at Hawaii's Dept of Health suggests that she's counting the tourists despite having just excluded them. I couldn't find the exact figures she's citing (and I do have to get back to work on my paying job), but here's what a quick search turned up:

G. Drowning Deaths

Current status and trends in Hawai`i

Drownings are the second leading cause of unintentional injury death. Each year in Hawai`i, there are nearly 50 drownings and over 100 water-related hospitalizations occurring mainly from activities in the ocean and pools. Hawai`i has more ocean-related drownings and injuries leading to death and disability per square mile than any other state. Nearly half of all ocean-related drownings and hospitalized injuries occur to non-residents, therefore de facto population estimates yield a more accurate injury rate.

Healthy Hawai`i 2000
Objective Baseline (1990)47 and current data

9.H Reduce drowning deaths to Drowning deaths 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994
no more than 3.0 per 100,000 among state residents 4.4 2.5 3.2 3.4 3.4
people. Drowning deaths 5.3 3.6 3.8 4.3 5.3
inde facto population

NOTE: Hawai`i's baseline for this objective is not resident population-based, as it includes visitors. Therefore, it can not be compared to the national objective.
47Hawai`i Department of Health Status Monitoring, Vital Statistics data, special tabulation.

She goes on to talk about the videos they're showing tourists to warn them about the dangers of the ocean -- pretty much recycling a story that ran two months ago in the Honolulu Advertiser, but not ripping it off. Just not improving on it much. The difference being that the Advertiser ran some fact boxes that, while more current than the ten-year-old figures in this DOH report, were closer to this rate than the 9.7 quoted by the NYTimes writer.

And the Honolulu reporter didn't automatically assume that, when readers think of hazards in the ocean, they imagine Jaws.


Dann said...

And you wonder why some folks question the Times' reporting regarding other, more important issues...



Mike said...

About a decade ago, the Times covered a Phish concert in Plattsburgh, which they described as being across the river from Burlington, VT. I wrote to them pointing out that the "river" was Lake Champlain, but never even got a response, much less a correction. I think you have to have a title to get their attention.