Duke University researchers have found that many full-face snorkeling masks do not work as advertised and in some cases may increase the risk to snorkelers. 

Rachel Lance, one of the leaders of the study, presented her findings during a Thursday webinar series, saying that while some of these masks provided “accessible breathing pressures,” others did not and allowed water to leak through.

The study raises more questions — and perhaps doubt — for consumers who don’t have a way of knowing which brands are safe to use, and there’s no real oversight to help guide them. There have been attempts from ocean safety experts and state and county officials over the past several years to find out if the full-face design is inherently more dangerous but so far those have been inconclusive.

Swimmers use full face snorkel masks at Kaimana Beach.
Swimmers use full-face snorkeling masks at Kaimana Beach. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Lance said she plans to meet with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to talk about some sort of regulations for full-face snorkeling masks.

One major concern for Lance during her research was that some of the masks were hard to trace back to their manufacturers. 

“I was really alarmed at how little traceability there was for these masks,” Lance said in an interview after her presentation. “I called Amazon, I looked at the trademarks, tried to find the companies listed in the trademarks, and some of them went to residential houses in New Jersey that in no way could’ve been manufacturers.” 

Snorkeling, a popular activity in Hawaii, has long been a leading cause of death for tourists. Of the 204 people who drowned from snorkeling between 2011 and 2020, approximately 91% were visitors, according to state health department records. But it’s unclear how many of those were wearing full-face masks and if those masks were to blame.

 

State epidemiologist Dan Galanis said there’s no reliable data that tracks the type of snorkeling gear a person was wearing during an incident. 

“It’s kind of hard to say, but one thing that’s clear is people drowning from snorkeling was a problem much longer than when these full-face masks came around,” he said. 

In January, a two-year “Snorkel Safety Study” reported that some of the causes of snorkeling deaths were from a medical condition called induced pulmonary edema, which is like breathing air through a coffee straw. 

“Some of the causes for the fluid in the lungs include the resistance to inhalation of air through the tubes that were associated with the various device styles,” said Dr. Phillip Foti, an Oahu pulmonologist who studied the issue. “And it really doesn’t help in determining what the overall risk is or not.”

This state Department of Health graphic shows fatal and nonfatal snorkeler drownings from 2009 to 2018. Courtesy: Department of Health

Retired Honolulu Emergency Services Director Jim Howe, who previously served as the ocean safety chief, said snorkeling-related drownings can be difficult to prevent.

“We were trying to train our lifeguards to identify people who were snorkeling who haven’t moved because these people don’t show signs of distress,” he said. “They pass out floating face down.”

Full-face snorkeling masks rose in popularity several years ago. Rentals can easily be found in Waikiki and other tourism hotspots. They can be bought at Walmart, Costco, Amazon and other outlets. 

Amazon was where Nancy Peacock bought her first full-face mask. She died in 2016 during her trip to Hawaii island while snorkeling in Pohoiki Bay. Her husband, Guy Cooper, has been searching for answers ever since. 

Guy Cooper, right, has been advocating for studies on the full-face snorkeling masks after his wife, Nancy Peacock, left, died in 2016. Courtesy: Guy Cooper

Cooper advocated for years for independent studies of full-face snorkeling masks, and for him Lance’s research means a lot. 

“Just the fact that she had my name and Nancy’s name on there made a lump in my throat,” he said. “I don’t know how you get over something like this. I think there needs to be more studies.”

Researchers from the Duke University Center for Hyperbaric Medicine & Environmental Physiology presented their recent experimental work assessing a selection of full-face snorkel masks Thursday. DAN TV

Lance conducted the study, funded by Divers Alert Network, over four months this summer using 10 subjects separated into two groups. The first group consisted of people older than 18, and the second group ranged from 18 to 40 – if they passed the physical fitness test. 

The subjects were tasked with wearing seven different full-face snorkeling brands while swimming in a supervised tank – some were made by diving manufacturers while three were the “lowest price” from Amazon. 

The next step for Lance is to look at “real-world data from reported snorkeling accidents from groups now working hard to document them.”

The study has been peer-reviewed and is expected to be published next year, Lance said.

See more information on ocean-related drownings from the Department of Health below.

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