Danger in the bath

An investigation into one of Japan’s favorite pastimes — bathing — has found a startling statistic: 14,000 people a year die during bath time. That’s nearly three times more deaths than from car accidents, 4,612 people.

The results of the first nationwide study into bath fatalities by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare should highlight the need for safer bathing practices in a country that loves nothing better than to take a bath.

Bathing seems such a comforting and pleasant activity that it is hard to associate it with danger. However, the deaths come from several different problems. Some deaths resulted from drowning when bathers fell asleep. Other causes were heart attacks, subarachnoid hemorrhages or strokes from the sudden shift in temperatures. Dehydration and injuries resulting from slipping were also among the causes.

Researchers at Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine found last year that the danger of heart attacks is nearly 10 times greater in winter than in summer — and much higher than the risk of cardiac arrest during exercise. The rapid blood pressure drop that happens when getting in the bath stresses the heart more on a cold day, which can lead to a number of complications.

A few basic precautions should be undertaken, just as with any other activity. The survey found that a large number of victims were elderly. Since older people are increasing in numbers and increasingly living alone, they need to exercise special caution.

The change between room and water temperature should not be too large or too quick. Gradual acclimation helps considerably to reduce stress on the body. Bathing for extended time in overly hot baths can be curtailed with a timer or family member watching the time. Extremely slippery areas, especially in older buildings, should be made safer with nonslip flooring, treads and mats.

The idea of regulations for bathing like those related to automobiles may seem absurd to many, but greater public awareness is an important first step to reducing the large number of fatalities. Authorities should issue guidelines and warnings based on research, medical knowledge and thorough investigations.

Bathing is one of Japan’s most cherished rituals and an important expression of deeply held values. That, of course, is all the more reason that bathing should be approached with the awareness of basic precautions to avoid potential dangers.