From all appearances, the shallow waters of the toddler wading pool posed little danger to Tina Cocco, a boisterous 3-year-old. Seated securely inside a brightly colored, puppy dog-shaped float toy she called “Snoopy,” the dark-haired child happily splashed around the pool under the watchful eyes of her mother and a baby-sitter.
But in a matter of seconds, as the women lounged in the sun at the Nellie Gail Ranch Swim Club in Laguna Hills, came near-disaster. Without warning, the plastic inflatable raft overturned, trapping Tina’s head and upper body underwater as her legs kicked the air, entangling themselves in the leg holes of the suddenly menacing toy.
Jill Cocco moved quickly and pulled her frightened, yet safe, daughter from the water. Although the incident was but a momentary scare, experts say it points to the dangers of children being left unsupervised in pools with inflatable toys not designed to act as life preservers.
Last year, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission said 1,954 people, including an estimated 600 children under the age of 14, were injured in accidents involving flotation toys used in pools. Of those, about 100 were hospitalized. And although the federal agency does not track deaths associated with the toys, physicians say that some patients hospitalized in these cases often suffer permanent brain damage, or die.
In Southern California, where a high percentage of backyard pools help make drowning the No. 1 cause of death at home for young children, many communities have banned flotation devices from public pools.
But lifeguards and other experts say that in many cases, the word simply hasn’t gotten out to parents that the flotation toys so popular with children can be hazardous if used as a substitute for life preservers.
“They are very dangerous,” said Sally Schneider, aquatics coordinator for the American Red Cross in Long Beach. “Floating toys are the last thing you should put your child in to play in the water.”
Critics of the flotation devices charge that the colorful, often animal-shaped toys can easily deflate while in the water and have an alarming tendency to tip over. Toy manufacturers point out that their products are toys, not life jackets, and note that all such inflatable toys carrying warning labels on their packaging boxes.
Still, critics worry that too many parents fail to read the warning labels in their rush to enjoy their backyard pools; they assume that because the toys float and often are designed to fit a small child’s body, they can be used as life preservers.
To make matters worse, water-safety officials say that all too often the child who uses the toys cannot swim.
“That’s the real danger,” said Milton Freeman, national YMCA aquatics director based in Atlanta. “These toys give a sense of false security. Parents have a tendency to strap them in and leave for a minute, and that’s all it takes.”
Toy makers insist they have gone to great lengths to warn parents that the items are toys, not constructed to keep a child afloat, and are no substitute for adult supervision.
“I can’t imagine telling anyone that these toys are in any way baby-sitters,” said Dave Fisher, director of product design at Intex Recreation Corp., a Long Beach-based company with manufacturing plants in Taiwan and Singapore. “I don’t understand how people can go off to answer the phone and leave their kids in the pool.”
Intex is acknowledged by competitors as one of the leading flotation toy manufacturers on the West Coast. Fisher said sales of the firm’s line of inflatable water toys reached $100 million last year.
“Safety is something we think about every day,” he said. “We’ve never tipped one over in all the hundreds of times we’ve tested these toys. But there are some people who are going to misuse a product no matter how it’s made.”
The potential danger has been addressed by the Philadelphia-based American Society for Testing and Materials, a nonprofit group that provides product information. The organization has issued standards for flotation toys and recommends warning labels on packaging. Most firms comply with the voluntary standards, but experts worry that the general public may not be aware of the potential problems.
“I’ve been waiting to talk” about the issue for years, said Cathy Ferguson Brennan, a former Olympic swim champion who now supervises the swimming program at the Nellie Gail Ranch pool.
Brennan, who also helps produce water-safety videos for the American Red Cross, said she has been warning of the dangers of the toys “but nobody wants to listen. I have spent my lifetime around kids and I have seen the attractive nuisance these toys represent.”
About 30 feet from the wading pool where Tina Cocco tipped over, Brennan re-created the accident with the same model of inflatable toy used by the 3-year-old to illustrate how easily it could happen.
Placing Charlotte Martin, a 2-year-old of similar size to Tina, into a bright-green floating toy shaped like a frog, Brennan stood waist-deep in a pool next to the toy and asked the child to climb out.
Grunting determinedly, the slim, blonde girl leaned forward and managed to pull most of her body out of the bobbing, plastic toy before it capsized.
With most of her body underwater, Charlotte tried to free herself but her legs became tangled in the leg holes, momentarily trapping the youngster before Brennan pulled her out of the water.
“A non-swimmer would have panicked and made it difficult to pull her out,” Brennan said. “Left alone, the child would intake water and drowning would come quickly and silently. Underwater, nobody can hear them yelling or screaming.”
The demonstration, she said, showed that parents “should beware of flotation devices. The pool should be a fun place for a child, but only under close supervision.”
Brennan and other water-safety experts worry because of the rash of drownings, and near-drownings, involving children during the summer months.
In California alone, a UC Davis study released in March shows that children under the age of 4 make up about 75% of the pool drownings statewide. Although statistics do not indicate how many deaths are linked to the toys, national drowning experts say accidents involving inflatables may be grossly underreported.
Emergency response crews are too busy to notice anything besides the job at hand and parents “are in such a state of trauma, exactly how it happened is not of great concern to them,” said Dollie Brill, president of the National Drowning Prevention Network in Ft. Worth, Tex.
“There is no government agency that deals with it, and reporting of this kind of accident is extremely limited,” Brill said. “It’s a hidden problem that critically needs some attention.”
Los Angeles County, which does not separate pool deaths from others, reported 120 drownings in 1989. Billie Weiss, a county epidemiologist, estimates that 80% of all water deaths in the county occur in a private pool.
“Drowning in a pool is the No. 1 cause of death to children under 5 in Los Angeles County,” she said.
In Orange County, which averages 12 to 14 water deaths each year for all ages, five children under the age of 5 have drowned in local pools or hot tubs this year.
Dr. Ralph Rucker, director of the pediatric pulmonary section of Children’s Hospital of Orange County, said he also is concerned about the relationship between drownings and flotation devices.
“I’m extremely frustrated because when parents put toys in the pool for their 2-year-old, they make the pool a fun, loving place to be,” he said. “But the danger to children there is so severe, you’ve got to look at it like a knife or a whirling fan. Pools are a lethal luxury in the back yard.”
He added that many flotation devices are not designed for very young children.
“What they don’t take into account is that a young child’s head is very heavy in proportion to the rest of its body,” he said. “If you put small children in one of those things, it is likely to tip over.”
Lee Baxter, western regional director for the Consumer Product Safety Commission in San Francisco, said flotation toys “are definitely not a good idea for a young child who can’t swim. The only device I’d be comfortable with is one certified by the U.S. Coast Guard.”
The agency’s official policy on water toys is that consumers should use them “with extreme care and caution,” said Rosario Quintanilla, public affairs officer for the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Los Angeles office.
After the Cocco family’s experience, Tina’s nanny, who declined to be identified, said the youngster’s “Snoopy” water toy was “cut into little pieces and thrown away.”
In recalling the incident, Jill Cocco said she was lucky that she had been watching her daughter as she played in the pool.
“At night, I can still see it happen,” she said. “I can close my eyes and still see it unfold in front of me. Fortunately, I was only three feet away and saved (Tina) before she became a victim. I feel so lucky. I also feel a need to warn other parents.”