Time to BAN Breath-holding

Time to ban breath holding.

By Tom Griffiths

The timing of David Blaine’s most recent stunt could not have been worse, with the summer swim season now in full swing. Though many Americans may have been amused and entertained by Blaine’s recent breath-holding escapade, I worry that some competitive individuals will die this summer attempting to do the very same thing at public and private pools around the country.

While physicians have recognized the hazards of prolonged breath holding and underwater swimming for decades, the public has not. Unbeknownst to many Americans, competitive swimmers, Navy Seals, triathletes and even lifeguards have killed themselves while performing similar tasks such as breath holding underwater for five minutes, or swimming the three lengths of the pool below the surface.

Competitive and repetitive underwater swimming is extremely dangerous, often leading to sudden death by cardiac arrhythmia and other physiological causes. Paradoxically, stronger swimmers succumb to this underwater malady more often than weaker swimmers. Making matters worse, most lifeguards are trained to focus on the surface of the water for the subtle and silent signals of distressed swimmers, not the bottom of the pool.

In addition, once swimmers go to the pool bottom, they are extremely difficult to detect even in crystal clear water because of the reflective angles of water disturbance on the surface. Prolonged breath holding and underwater swimming should be banned in all swimming pools, particularly when it becomes competitive and repetitive. While the causes of sudden death underwater due to breath holding may be complicated, the solution is not. Just don’t do it. For more information on this and other important water safety topics, please refer to www.aquaticsafetygroup.com.

Tom Griffiths, Ed.D.

Director of Aquatics and Safety Officer for Athletics


State College, Pa.