For decades, drowning has been the leading cause of death for tourists in Hawaii — far greater than the national average and many more tourists than residents drown. Snorkeling is the most common cause of injury-related death in the islands, but there’s an alarming increase in snorkeling-related deaths: only 19 people drowned while snorkeling between 1994 and 1998, but in the four years from 2014 to 2018, the state Department of Health reported that 103 non-residents drowned while snorkeling. Full-face snorkels have gained popularity in the last few years—coincidence?
Although the Hawaii Tourism Authority is concerned of the increasing number of visitors involved in drownings and near-drownings, “It’s no longer just ‘stupid tourists’ [who are drowning],” said Ralph Goto, who co-chairs a drowning prevention committee. He told Civilbeat.org that snorkelers aren’t given any specific advice, such as how to use snorkeling equipment, what kind of risk factors are involved and how to avoid getting in trouble.
Some safety experts believe the full-face snorkel mask is the culprit, and lifeguards in Hawaii told CBS News they are seeing more and more of these full-face masks.
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Full-Face Snorkels Not Created Equal?
Full-face snorkeling masks don’t have mouthpieces like conventional snorkels. The mask goes over a person’s head and covers the entire face, which allows snorkelers to breath out of their mouth and noses, whereas traditional two-piece snorkel equipment only allows you to breathe from your nose. And it has a tighter-fitting headstrap. Manufacturers say it’s easier to breathe through your nose and mouth and gives a swimmer a panoramic view for a better snorkeling experience.
One manufacturer of the full face masks, Head USA, said in a statement: “The safety of our customers and the performance of our equipment have always been our first priorities,” adding the product “was put through rigorous testing protocols…including the measurement of potential CO2 build-up.” The statement went on to say their success “has spawned a number of low-cost copycat masks… whose expertise, design and manufacturing experience are unknown.”
Robert Wintner, founder of Snorkel Bob’s, one of Hawaii’s top snorkel equipment retailers, said he gets at least three inquiries a week from Chinese manufacturers with offers to send samples and requests to carry their full-snorkel brands. “And my response is always the same, ‘No, thank you. Please put them in the dumpster,'” Wintner told CBS News in 2018.
“Carbon dioxide buildup is known to lead to what we call a gray feeling,” Winter added. “Some people say it makes them sleepy. We know that it can exacerbate panic, which I think is the big culprit in most of these incidents you are seeing now across Hawaii.”
Wintner also noted its potential for carbon dioxide buildup due to the full-face design and likelihood of leaking because of using a cheap substitute for silicon to create a secure seal when worn.
Full-Mask Snorkel Recall
Unfortunately, the type of equipment used in snorkel-related deaths or near-deaths has only been recorded in the past few years. And there are no regulations in the U.S. on snorkel equipment. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled in April 2019 the Neptune Space Full Face Mask 50/60 PSI, warning that the regulator can cause restricted airflow and potentially risking an injury to divers.
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Other Full-Mask Snorkel Complaints
Some customers have reviewed the Azorro mask online. They have reported that it is prone to leaks and can be difficult to quickly remove because of straps designed for a snug fit. Users have also reported carbon dioxide buildups that could cause unconsciousness.
Back in 2017, CPSC investigators responded to a consumer complaint about the full-face snorkel. Guy Cooper from California believed the snorkel contributed to the 2016 drowning death of his wife, Nancy Peacock, in Hawaii. But CPSC couldn’t investigate because it didn’t have the possibly defective mask.
Maui Fire Battalion Chief Edward Taomoto said his department has noticed a recent uptick in the number of snorkel-related drownings or near drownings involving the full-face snorkels, according to SFGate. Taomoto suspects that there may be an unforeseen buildup of carbon dioxide within the breathing chamber of the full-face snorkels.
Now, lifeguards in Maui are tracking equipment worn by snorkelers who drown in their jurisdiction and other areas of Hawaii are likely to follow. Health officials and safety experts in Hawaii are looking at collecting the data necessary to better evaluate full-face masks and possibly conduct controlled scientific studies on it.
Full-Face Snorkel Design Flaw
Safety experts also believe this type of mask has a design flaw –it has greater risk for carbon dioxide buildup that could cause snorkelers to become dizzy or disoriented. As well, tighter-fitting head straps may be harder to pull off in an emergency.
Ocean-safety experts say the primary reasons visitors die while snorkeling in Hawaii is related to age and underlying health conditions. But full-face masks could also be considered a main reason.
Victims of dangerous and defective products such as a full-mask snorkel hire The Killino Firm because they know that we employ a team of attorneys, paralegals and investigators knowledgeable about defective products who will investigate the product and determine what went wrong and why. In addition, products that are designed or manufactured incorrectly, that do not provide proper warning labels, that were not recalled in a timely fashion and many others qualify as defective products. If any of these products injures a consumer or employee, then that victim is entitled to compensation and damages, including pain and suffering, payment of medical bills, loss of income, loss of earning capacity.
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