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Do falling coconuts really kill 150 people each year?

August 6, 2013 - Jo Lane

TODAY I received this tweet from @GreenpeaceAustP:

Falling coconuts kill 150 people each year, 15 times the number of deaths attributable to sharks.

This kind of statement might make you think twice about sitting under the idyllic swaying fronds of a coconut tree next time you’re on a beach in Thailand or Indonesia. However, sadly for Greenpeace these statistics are actually part of what has become an urban legend. Even Wikipedia has an entry “Death by coconut” explaining it.

A sign on a beach on Malaysia's Perhentian islands. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

A number of institutes and associations have addressed the origins of the legend in detail, perhaps most notably The Shark Research Institute given the comparison is made with sharks.

They wrote that the quoted figures could be traced back to a press release by a British travel insurance company who made the claim in an attempt to market their products to individuals traveling to Papua New Guinea.

The company, Club Direct, also cited an article by researcher Dr. Peter Barss who penned the paper “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts” in the Journal of Trauma. And according to The Shark Research Institute and an article by The Straight Dope, a newspaper column devoted to exposing myths, this is probably where the legend truly developed.

An abstract from Journal of Trauma reads:

Falling coconuts can cause injury to the head, back, and shoulders. A 4-year review of trauma admissions to the Provincial Hospital, Alotau, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, revealed that 2.5% of such admissions were due to being struck by falling coconuts. Since mature coconut palms may have a height of 24 up to 35 meters and an unhusked coconut may weigh 1 to 4 kg, blows to the head of a force exceeding 1 metric ton are possible. Four patients with head injuries due to falling coconuts are described. Two required craniotomy. Two others died instantly in the village after being struck by dropping nuts.

The Straight Dope made these comments about the study:

OK, getting hit by a coconut is no laughing matter. But nowhere does Barss say that 150 people get killed by coconuts each year. He provides an anecdotal account of one such death and in a separate paper estimates that over a four-year period five deaths in his hospital’s service area were related to coconut palm trees (including climbers falling out of them).

Given that Barss’ hospital in Papua New Guinea served a population of 130,000, one conceivably could project 150 deaths over that portion of the world population living in proximity to coconut palm trees, but I’m not aware of any systematic attempt to do so. Noting that death reports in tropical countries are limited, Barss tells me, “I am surprised that someone has come up with an actual number for such injuries. It must be a crude estimate, and you would have to ask them what methodology they used to verify whether it has any validity.” Conclusion: Somebody pulled the figure about 150 deaths due to coconuts out of thin air. Take that, shark lovers.

So the oft quoted statistic thus possibly derived from a probability of deaths around the world. However, it was given more weight when George Burgess, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File used it, but as The Straight Dope points out Burgess admitted getting it from the same press release mentioned earlier.

While the statistic of deaths might not be as high as 150 per year, coconut related injuries and deaths do happen. Wikipedia cites numerous cases of death and injury, some of which I checked including a report in The Telegraph about coconut trees being removed from beaches in Queensland, Australia to prevent injury and the Guardian‘s mention of a BBC report that noted the Indian government had removed coconuts from trees around Mumbai’s Ghandi Museum when American President Barack Obama visited in 2010 as a safety precaution because people in India were injured or killed by falling coconuts every year. In fact, if you’ve stayed in tropical countries you may have noticed that the better hotels and resorts have trained their groundskeepers to remove loose coconuts before they fall.

Whatever the comparison of shark deaths to those sustained by falling coconuts really is, Barss does point out that getting hit by a coconut is “not funny at all”. It may still have you thinking twice about dozing beneath the swaying fronds of a coconut tree.

Do falling coconuts really kill 150 people each year?
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