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Summer Risks vs. Realities

The news media are so full of warnings about potential summer health hazards that you may wonder, as the season wears on, how anyone ever comes through unscathed.

Water Hazards

As the weather heats up, pools open and people take to lakes and the ocean in droves, to swim, boat -- and sometimes drown. Every year, at least 3,000 people drown in the U.S., making it the next most serious summertime risk, behind traffic accidents.

Some drown when they fall victim to strong rip currents or undertows. Others drown when they're stricken by a sudden health emergency, be it a heart attack or just a bad cramp, while out swimming alone. Still others foolishly dive into unfamiliar waters, hit a submerged rock or a shallow bottom, and drown when they're knocked unconscious or break their necks.

"If you don't know what's down there, don't dive into it," Ulczycki says; and for safety's sake, also swim with a buddy.

Kids aged 4 and younger drown more often in swimming pools than in natural bodies of water, and drowning is the second leading accidental killer for this age group. According the CDC, most kids who drown in swimming pools at home had been out of their parents' sight for less than five minutes.

Boating also puts you at risk for drowning and other harm. The U.S. Coast Guard recorded more than 5,700 boating accidents in 2002, causing 4,062 injuries and 750 deaths. Drowning is the cause of death in most fatal boating accidents for all types of boats, excluding "personal watercraft," such as Jet Skis. The Coast Guard data also show that while more fatal accidents happen in the summer months, because more boaters are on the water, the percentage of deadly accidents is higher in colder months, particularly February, October, and November, when hypothermia quickly takes hold of people who go overboard.

Open motorboats (as opposed to cabin cruisers) are involved in the most boating deaths, as recklessness and speed play a big role. Sailors tend to be the safest bunch on the water; only one person died sailing in 2002. The Coast Guard report also notes that 440 deaths that year might have been prevented had the victims been wearing life vests.

Compared with the thousands of drownings and other injuries sustained on the water, the dozens of shark attacks seem like a paltry few. But sharks still hold powerful sway over our imagination, and it's hard not to envision a shark's-eye view of your own legs while you paddle in the ocean.

George Burgess is the director of the University of Florida Program for Shark Research and editor of the International Shark Attack File, which contains data on attacks from the mid-1500s to the present. Although most attacks occur in the U.S., and most of those are in Florida, "it's still uncommon when you consider the literally millions of person-hours that are spent in the water each year," he says.

People swim off the coast of Florida year-round, and sharks lurk in those waters all year, too. But in the mid-Atlantic region and the Northeast, swimming is limited to summertime, and sharks rarely venture as far north as Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts -- the actual location of the fictional Amity Island in Jaws, where there have been a total of three attacks in recorded history.

Around those parts, "your chances of encountering a shark, far less being bitten by one, are infinitesimally small," Burgess says.

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