A boy gets ready to dive into Lake Washington from a pier at Mount Baker Park.

Swim Seattle Strives to Address a Troubling Rise in Drowning Deaths

This is a critical issue for BIPOC and low-income communities as summers get hotter.

by Lauryn Bray

Since 2018, data shows drowning deaths have nearly doubled, and that statistic appears to be part of an alarming socioeconomic trend. Black residents in King County are two and a half times more likely to drown than white residents, according to a statement released by the King County Natural Resources and Parks office of public affairs last month. Experts attribute the disproportionality to lack of access to pools with certified lifeguards and lack of swimming lessons for minority groups of color. 

“For the last few years, I’ve seen for the first time [after] looking at all our data the disparity of African American persons in King County drowning at 2.22 and 2.5 times the proportion of the population in the county,” said Tony Gomez, King County Public Health’s violence and injury prevention program manager. “That had been observed in the South and many other places around the country, but we hadn’t really seen that here.” Gomez has been working on expanding drowning prevention for over 40 years. He’s been employed by King County’s Office of Public Health for almost the same amount of time. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide. In 2019, an estimated 236,000 people died from drowning. Countries on the lower end of the global economic spectrum account for 90% of unintentional drowning deaths, and the WHO identifies lower socioeconomic status, lack of education, and being a member of an ethnic minority as increased risks for drowning. 

According to Stop Drowning Now — an educational resource for drowning prevention — 64% of Black children, 45% of Hispanic/Latino children, and 40% of white children have few to no swimming skills. The website also states that nationwide, Black children ages 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at rates five and a half times higher than white children in the same age range.

So far this year, there have been at least 12 reports of drowning in King County. King County maintained an average of 18 drowning-related deaths per year between 2014 and 2018; however, in 2020, 33 people died from drowning. 

“For the last four years, we’ve had elevated drowning numbers in Seattle/King County at about 30 per year. That’s a problematic number of preventable drowning deaths,” said Gomez. “In the four years prior, we were averaging 18 drowning deaths per year, so that 60% or so increase continues to be a concern.”

In an attempt to curb the increasing number of drowning-related deaths, the Mayor’s Office has partnered with Seattle Parks and Recreation to launch Swim Seattle, a program dedicated to spreading awareness about drowning prevention through swimming lessons. 

“Our goal is that every kid [by] 10 years old has access to the [necessary] skills to become proficient in the water,” explained Mayor Bruce Harrell. 

Photo depicting a male- and Black-presenting youth swimming in a lake chasing a blue ball.
A boy swims to a ball in Lake Washington during a heatwave in 2021. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Historically, Seattle temperatures rarely exceed the mid-80s, typically averaging out in the mid-to-high 70s for the majority of the summer. Because of this, homes in Seattle rarely come with central air conditioning. However with temperatures increasing each year due to climate change, summers in the Pacific Northwest are only getting hotter. 

“In low-income and BIPOC communities, many areas have fewer trees and less access to air conditioning. And these are patterns that have historical roots in institutional racism and redlining,” said Harrell. “Climate change has a direct impact on this issue. People are finding ways to [stay] cool, and without the adequate safeguards in place, it could result in bad outcomes.” 

Modernize, a website that connects homeowners with contractors, states that the average cost for installing a central air conditioning unit ranges from $6,423 to $11,800. Census data from 2021 states that the median household income is $110,000 — this means the cost of installing central air for the average Seattle household exceeds a month’s salary, even before taxes. Additionally, the average median income for a Black household in Seattle is $41,343, while the national average median income for an American household is $69,700. 

With nearly 4 in 10 Americans unable to afford a $400 emergency (according to a 2022 survey from the Federal Reserve), it is easy to understand why some households must pick the pool instead of calling a contractor when temperatures get too high. 

Gomez says the county has taken several steps toward expanding awareness to prevent drownings, such as co-leading the Washington State Drowning Prevention Network, which includes Seattle Children’s Hospital, Washington Recreation & Park Association, Public Health — Seattle & King County, Safe Kids Washington, and the Washington State Department of Health. 

“One of the things that Seattle Children’s did was develop and make a best practice the life jacket loaner boards. A family or an individual can go to 25 beaches in the King County area, and if there isn’t a lifeguard there or they just want to have that extra level of safety, they can borrow a life jacket for the day,” explained Gomez.

The County also provides a link to a coupon that takes 20% off the price of a life jacket from Big 5 Sporting Goods. The coupon is redeemable until Sept. 30. 

Scientists say some effects of climate change are already irreversible, and things are only expected to get worse. As summer weather gets hotter each year and the City continues to struggle to hire enough lifeguards, Gomez encourages families to visit their local public pools instead of wading in open waters.

“This is probably the least number of lifeguarded beaches in our region, at least in the last 30 to 40 years that I can recall. A lot of our beaches that were historically lifeguarded are no longer guarded,” explained Gomez. “We don’t have required standards or even adopted guidelines for swim beaches [in regards to] lifeguard certifications. We’re hopeful that over the next year or two, we’ll see something develop at a state level that will help.”

For resources on how to stay cool in the South End, check out the Emerald’s “Beat the Heat: A Cool-Off Guide for the South End.”

Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.

📸 Featured Image: A boy gets ready to dive into Lake Washington from a pier at Mount Baker Park. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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