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October 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Are Some Snorkels and Snorkel Masks Death Traps?

concern for the safety of snorkelers in Hawaii

from the October, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

snorkeling mask

Between 2003 and 2012, 102 visitors drowned snorkeling, compared to 13 residents, and safety advocates are wondering why so many more visitors die snorkeling in Hawaii than local residents. One answer: their snorkels are unsafe.

Dr. Philip Foti, an Oahu pulmonary medicine physician, is developing a "gadget" to test different types of snorkel tubes to see which ones create the most resistance while breathing through them. He says that snorkel companies have added new "doodads" to the tubes over the years -- mostly aimed at keeping water out -- but they may have an unintended consequence.

Foti is concerned about the full-face snorkel masks that are now "all the rage." He called them a "recipe for disaster . . . We need to find out how to test them and then what to do about protecting people from using them."

Ralph Goto, retired administrator of Honolulu's Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division, said it's important for first responders to obtain as much information as they can from each snorkeling-related drowning or near-drowning incident.

Carol Wilcox, a lifelong Hawaii resident and former lifeguard, almost became part of those statistics in 2004. She had just flown back to Oahu after a trip to Canada when she decided to go snorkeling by the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki. Making her way to the wind sock roughly 150 yards from shore, she started to have shortness of breath. She soon realized she had no strength in her arms to wave for help, so she began to kick her way back with her long fins.

"My heartbeat sounded like a drum, and pretty soon I couldn't breathe," Wilcox said. "I realized at that moment why lifeguards can miss the signs of drowning. A wave pushed me up onto the sand, and I lost consciousness." A lone beachgoer that evening saw Wilcox, and she was taken to the hospital.

Foti said he determined she had negative pressure pulmonary edema, which is caused by an upper airway obstruction generating enough pressure to pull fluid from the arteries that take blood to the lungs. He and Wilcox question what role her snorkel played in the incident, since it was one with an apparatus attached to the top of the tube to keep water out, possibly restricting the flow of air. And they question the role of her recent air travel. Smoking, drinking and certain prescription pills could also make someone more susceptible to this condition, he said.

Foti added that increasingly popular snorkeling masks that cover the entire face might present similar problems. For starters, he said there is dead space ventilation in the device that seems greater than in the standard snorkel tube. That dead space can cause carbon dioxide build-up.

California resident Guy Cooper, whose wife drowned last year while snorkeling off the Big Island, has been trying to warn the public about the potential hazards of full-face masks such as the one his wife was wearing.

Cooper has said the carbon dioxide build-up in the mask could cause someone to become disoriented or lose consciousness, not to mention other possible hazards such as its difficulty to remove quickly in an emergency.

Cooper's advocacy prompted officials to start keeping track of the type of snorkeling equipment that was worn in drownings.

"You can't interview the people who have had fatal drownings, but we can interview the people who survive," Goto said. "It's important for us as first responders to get as much information as we can."

- from articles by Nathan Eagle, Honolulu Civil Beat

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