By Miriam Falco
(CNN) — If you’re not a parent, you may not be aware of the popularity of inflatable bounce houses, but they are popping up more and more — at church picnics, county and mall fairs, birthday and “bounce house” parties, and indoor playgrounds.
However, the fun from these increasingly popular devices for children’s entertainment comes along with a risk of injuries — noted nationwide, from Seattle to Des Moines, Iowa, to Tampa, Florida.
One pediatric emergency physician in Columbus, Ohio, began wondering if injuries were occurring elsewhere after treating many children who were hurt while playing in inflatable bounce houses.
So Dr. Gary Smith from Nationwide Children’s Hospital launched the first study to find out how many inflatable bouncer-related injuries occurred in the United States.
Smith and his team analyzed records from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which is operated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. NEISS collects patient information for every emergency visit involving an injury associated with consumer products.
According to its data, the number of inflatable bouncer-related injuries rose 1,500 percent between 1995 and 2010.
In the last two years of the study, from 2008 to 2010, the rate of injuries more than doubled, according to the study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
In 2010 alone, 31 children were treated in emergency departments each day on average, according to the report. “That’s about one child every 45 minutes,” says Smith, who is the director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Of the nearly 65,000 children treated in U.S. emergency departments over a 20-year period, 55 percent of these injuries occurred between 2005 and 2010, according to the study. More than half of the injured children were in the 6- to 12-year-old age group; more than a third were under the age of 5.
Arm and leg injuries were the most common injuries. The youngest children, those under 5, were more likely to have fractures, and teenagers were more likely to sustain sprains and strains.
Nearly 1 in 5 children, or 18.5 percent, had head and neck injuries. However, only three percent of children required hospitalization, according to the study.
Smith says there are no good data to explain why the number of injuries is going up, but increased use could be to blame. The number of injuries may be higher than the figures cited in the study, the research suggests, since they don’t include children who were injured and treated somewhere besides an emergency room.
Smith believes if these numbers were statistics for an infectious disease, it would be considered a public health emergency. “This is an emerging hazard, something that should be taken seriously, but something that can be prevented,” he says.
Smith says the pattern of injuries from inflatable bounce houses is similar to injuries sustained from trampoline use. But while there are national safety guidelines for trampolines, there are none for inflatable bouncers.
Recognizing that children need to spend more time playing outdoors, Smith is not calling for a ban. Instead he wants parents to be aware that there are risks with this type of activity, as with any other physical activity.
The CPSC investigates accidents and in the past has issued hazard alerts. It recommends to operators that all bounce houses be anchored and that children of different age groups should not be allowed to play at the same time.
There is no one industry group that represents vendors for inflatable bouncers, probably because some are used in fairs, others are in permanent indoor facilities and amusement parks, and there are the rentals for home use.
According to the CPSC, these bouncing playgrounds fall under an organization called ASTM International, which develops international voluntary standards. ASTM says it is working on standards for “Constant Air Inflatable Play Devices.”
Some vendors display their safety rules on their websites or at their facilities. But even though guidelines are posted, that doesn’t mean they are actually followed.
So until more formal recommendations are in place, Smith believes a lot that’s been learned about trampoline use can be applied to inflatable bouncers. He has the following advice for parents:
• Based on developmental abilities, don’t let children under the age of 6 play in these inflatable devices.
• Having one child play at a time is the safest, but that’s not very realistic (or much fun), so only have children of similar age and size play inside these bouncers at one time.
• Horseplay, flips and somersaults should be prohibited; that kind of play leads to the most dangerous injuries.
• Always have an adult present when these devices are in use — but not inside with the children. Adults (parents and/or bounce center operators) should be in a position to observe and intervene if children are engaging in horseplay or doing flips and somersaults.
The Child Injury Prevention Alliance also offers safety tips for inflatable bouncers on its website.
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