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Hundreds hurt, dozens killed in bounce houses, study shows

Jun 04, 2023

New research from the University of Georgia may take the fun out of inflatable bounce houses. The study, published last month by the American Meteorological Society, found that wind has caused 479 bounce house-related injuries and 28 deaths since 2000.

While bounce houses have caused plenty of injuries without the help of wind, most of the wind-related incidents were head and neck injuries due to kids falling out of the bounce house when it was moved by wind, John Knox, Ph.D., the study's lead author and a geography professor at University of Georgia, told TODAY.

"Last December in Devonport, Tasmania," he shared as one example, "six children were killed because they fell over 30 feet to the ground from an airborne bounce house."

The study's research team also discovered a few other examples of wind moving a bounce house and causing harm, Thomas Gill, Ph.D., co-author on the study and a professor of environmental science at the University of Texas at El Paso, told TODAY.

Three children in El Paso, Texas, were injured when a dust devil picked up a bounce house and sent it flying above several other houses in the neighborhood. A bounce house in Pasadena, California, was blown around during Rose Bowl festivities, injuring many, and another bounce house with a child inside blew onto a highway in Adelanto, California, hurting the child and causing an automobile crash.

"The last fatal accident involving wind and a bounce house happened in 2019 in Reno, Nevada, when winds lifted up a jumping castle with three children inside and into electrical power lines, injuring two of the kids and killing a 9-year-old girl," Gill told TODAY. "We documented these types of incidents from all over the world."

Although bounce houses are large and might seem unlikely to be carried away by wind, Gill noted that because they are inflated by air, "they are very buoyant, like a giant balloon." Knox explained that bounce houses are also tall and relatively light, "so the wind can topple them, roll them over or even lift them into the air."

Knox also stressed that it doesn't take a high velocity of wind to move a bounce house and cause injury to those inside and nearby.

"The winds in the general vicinity of these accidents are way below severe levels," he said. Per Knox, bounce houses can be moved by winds of less than 25 mph, and that half of the incidents identified in the study involved even milder wind. "A sudden gust on a warm day is enough to move a bounce house," he warned.

The July study also showed children can become injured in bounce houses if they're jumped on or knocked into by other children, if they fall out, or if the house deflates or collapses, suffocating them. "For every wind-related bounce house accident, there are many, many other types of incidents and injuries," Gill said.

Dr. Terri Cappello, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Children's Hospital in Chicago, said not a single summer has passed in her career where she did not have to treat a broken bone due to a bounce house injury.

Knox added that there are roughly 10,000 emergency room visits due to bounce houses injuries every year. Indeed, a 2012 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that 30 children are treated in emergency rooms for inflatable bouncer-related injuries every day.

"That is one child every 45 minutes," said Dr. Gary Smith, author of the 2021 study and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

The most common types of bounce house-related injuries that Smith and Capello have observed include: bruises, muscle strains, broken bones, and injuries to the head and neck, like concussions.

"More than one out of every four injuries was a broken bone," Smith noted. "(Bounce castle) injuries happen more frequently than most people realize."

A different University of Georgia study found that bounce houses can also become very hot. "Excessive heat is a real source of concern when playing in bounce houses," Marshall Shepherd, Ph.D., co-author of the University of Georgia study, told TODAY.

He said his research showed the average heat index (temperature plus humidity) "was between 104 and 117 degrees inside of the bounce houses ... and much higher than the heat index outside." Shepherd warned that such extreme temperatures can cause dehydration, heat exhaustion and even burns from the areas of the bounce house exposed to direct sunlight.

Despite the known dangers associated with bounce houses, experts stressed that playing in them can be safe and fun, so long as a few precautions are followed.

Smith suggested anchoring bounce houses securely on flat surfaces away from tree branches and making sure children of similar ages and sizes jump together.

"If the bouncer starts to lose air, stop play and have all children get out of the bouncer immediately," he added.

Gill stressed that if winds arise, parents should not only evacuate the bounce house but also deflate it since airborne bounce houses can still harm others.

"In 2013 in Alabama, an empty bounce house was blown by the wind and struck and killed an elderly innocent bystander," he said.

Cappello echoed the importance of older children not jumping with younger ones and noted that kids are often injured when doing tricks and flips that cause collisions within the bounce house.

"To minimize the risk of serious injury, I would recommend that kids jump as opposed to flip," she advised. She added that parents should also be present when children are playing in bounce houses, as "adult supervision is key," she said.

"Use common sense, monitor heat conditions, keep kids hydrated and be aware of signs of heat stress and heat exhaustion, such as sudden fatigue or dizziness," offered Shepherd.

Gill also recommended reviewing the bounce house owner's manual to ensure only the proper number of kids are playing in it at a time. It will also have important information on how to tie down the bounce house and the maximum wind it can withstand.

"Bounce houses are a lot of fun, and they can be great entertainment," he said. "But they have to be secured and monitored carefully. A responsible adult should not only be watching the people in the bounce house, but also the weather."

Daryl Austin is a health journalist based in Utah. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Kaiser Health News and Parents magazine.

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