Posted on May 24, 2024

Drowning Deaths Are Increasing Among Children and Racial Disparities Continue, CDC Finds

Melissa Willets, Parents, May 22, 2024

As a mom of a 3-year-old child, living in a house with a pool, water safety is always top of mind. So, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new Vital Signs study finding that drowning deaths have increased, I wanted to know more. One of the most sobering facts I learned is that drowning is the number one cause of death for kids ages 1 to 4 in the United States.

More than 4,000 people die from drowning every year. Thought about another way, that’s about 12 people per day, or one person every two hours who drowns in a bathtub, pool, or open water. That number was higher from 2020–2022, compared to 2019, with the number of deaths increasing to over 4,500 per year. It was the first increase in about two decades.

The CDC report shows rates were highest among children 1 to 4 years old. There are also racial disparities: Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Black people suffered the highest rates of drowning deaths.

What accounts for the increase in deaths and the racial disparity in drowning rates? Well, that’s a complex question—and study authors admit they can’t know all factors that may have led to their findings. However, what they do know is that the pandemic played a role in people not having access to swim lessons, water safety courses, and supervised swimming settings.

It’s also important to emphasize that historically, pools were segregated, preventing access for Black people. Asian and Latinx communities were also impacted. When pools became desegregated, one of the reactions was to close public swimming spaces. The loss of spaces to swim, along with the disrepair of swimming spaces in mostly Black neighborhoods, led to generations of people not swimming.

Swim lessons can also be expensive, or hard to find in rural areas, which means some people simply don’t have the means to learn this life-saving skill.

The statistics help underscore how these factors play out across America. Consider that nearly 40 million adults don’t know how to swim, and more than half have never taken a swim lesson. But while 15% of adults don’t know how to swim, more than 36% of Black adults report not having this life skill, and 2 in 3 Black adults and 3 in 4 Latinx adults report they have never taken a swim lesson.


One person who feels passionately about all kids having access to swim lessons is Cullen Jones, Olympic Gold medalist and Goldfish Swim School ambassador. “Growing up, everyone else around me was playing basketball and football while I was the only Black member of a swim team,” says Jones.

The now 40-year-old says he doesn’t recall experiencing racism until he was 16. “Another mother, whose son I had just beat in a race, made a comment that I should be off playing basketball,” he shares. {snip}

Jones explains, “Swimming—and drowning—know no color,” and that’s why he wants everyone to learn how to swim. His advice for parents of Black children is to think about swimming not just as a sport, but as a life skill.

“Promote inclusivity with your children at a young age,” he adds. “Let your child know why representation matters, and why representation matters so much with something that can literally save their life.”

{snip} Research has also found Black parents are more likely than other caregivers to hold feelings of caution, anxiety, and fear toward water and water activities.