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Rollercoaster Risks: Real or Imaginary?

Can G-Force Cause Brain Injury?
It's a summer thrill and a family tradition: Each year Anita A. and her 16-year-old daughter trek to amusement parks near their home in Massachusetts or while vacationing in Florida. They are not about to let the latest headlines chase them off the new generation of mega-coasters, despite renewed concerns about the risk of brain injuries.

"I've been on some of the biggest, baddest coasters in the country, including Montu at Busch Gardens which moves at more than 100 miles per hour with a 200-foot vertical drop," boasts this mom. "The only weirdness I felt was the weirdness I was born with. Besides, this is one of the few activities that my daughter and I still enjoy doing together! No harm, I believe."

Setting a G-force Standard
At the opening of the 2002 summer season, amusement park officials would be thrilled to hear such a ringing endorsement of its newest, fastest-moving mega coasters. The industry is on the defensive once again following the January release of a report in the Annals of Emergency Medicine documenting a significant increase in the number of brain injuries reported after rides on high-speed coasters. Although the link between a ride's G-force (gravitational pull) and brain injury has yet to be proven scientifically, the growing catalogue of injuries and deaths has prompted Congressman Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) to introduce legislation calling for a national G-force standard. Currently there is no federal oversight of amusement parks, and many states do little or no inspection.

This fall, New Jersey is expected to set the first state G-force standard. Meanwhile, the Brain Injury Association of America (biausa.org) has formed a blue ribbon panel of neurologists and engineers to review the current data and assess the risks. Some scientists are concerned about how long the G-forces last, and how quickly they change. As G-force increases, it becomes harder for the heart to pump blood to the brain. "The numbers (of injuries and deaths) are real," says Allan I. Bergman, president and CEO of the Brain Injury Association. "The question is why? The (amusement park) industry's position seems to be there is no need for regulation. Our position is that we're going to review the literature and come out with a report and recommendation to Congress."

To Ride or Not to Ride -- That Is the Question
The Brain Injury Association of America's analysis won't be completed until the fall, leaving many parents wondering whether or not the mega-coasters are safe for families. Is it okay for kids to climb into a coaster that may have a G-force greater than that of a space shuttle? In the absence of conclusive scientific evidence, Bergman offers the following recommendation: If your child has any history of hypertension, seizure disorder, attention deficit disorder, chronic headaches, or any other cardiovascular or cerebral-related condition, he or she should probably avoid high G-force rides.

In a statement, The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (iaapa.org) expressed confidence that the blue ribbon panel will reaffirm "amusement park rides (as) one of the safest forms of recreation and entertainment available." The IAAPA notes that last year 320 million guests safely enjoyed over three billion rides. Statistically, the industry group claims, an amusement park ride is much safer than a bike ride or a trip down a ski slope. On that point, the Brain Association's Bergman is inclined to agree.

"As much concern as we have about the potential issues in high G-force rides, as a parent I'd be much more concerned about the definite known risks of bike riding and roller blading, and the need for children to have helmets and appropriate safety gear," he advises. "Parents don't realize it, but traumatic brain injury is the leading cause of injury-related cause of disability and death in children and adolescents."

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