Fatal and nonfatal drowning outcomes related to dangerous underwater breath-holding behaviors - New York State, 1988-2011

MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2015 May 22;64(19):518-21.


Drowning is an important cause of preventable injury and mortality, ranking fifth among leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States. In 2011, two healthy young men died in a drowning incident at a New York City (NYC)-regulated swimming facility. The men became unconscious underwater after performing intentional hyperventilation before submersion. The phenomenon of healthy swimmers becoming unconscious underwater has been described elsewhere as hypoxic blackout. Prompted by this incident, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) in collaboration with the New York State Department of Health (SDOH) conducted a case review of New York state fatal and nonfatal drownings reported during 1988-2011 to investigate similar behaviors in other incidents. DOHMH identified 16 cases, three in NYC, with a consistent set of voluntary behaviors associated with unintentional drowning and designated this class of behaviors as "dangerous underwater breath-holding behaviors" (DUBBs). For this small sample, the frequency of different DUBBs varied by age and swimming level, and practicing more than one DUBB increased the risk for fatality. This research contributes to the literature on drowning by focusing on contributing behaviors rather than drowning outcomes. NYC recently enacted public health education and regulations that discourage DUBBs; these interventions have the potential to effectively reduce unintentional drowning related to these behaviors and could be considered by other municipalities and jurisdictions.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Apnea / complications
  • Child
  • Drowning / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperventilation / complications
  • Hyperventilation / psychology
  • Hypoxia / complications
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Near Drowning / epidemiology*
  • New York / epidemiology
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Swimming / psychology*
  • Young Adult