A highly-cited “fact” states that deaths from falling coconuts greatly outnumbers deaths by shark attacks.
Classic Urban Legend
While it is a fact that people have been occasionally killed by falling coconuts, the number of people killed per year – often cited as 150 – is the basis of a modern urban legend which is revived every year during Discovery Channel’s popular Shark Week.
150 Deaths Per Year?
The statistic of 150 annual deaths from falling coconuts has been cited for over a decade, and this number is often compared to the number of deaths from shark attacks, which is estimated to be about 5 per year worldwide. Although some writers have challenged the number of 150 over the years, it continues to be referenced – often without debate – sometimes by respected journalists.
Virtually every citation claiming 150 coconut-related deaths per year can be traced back to a May 2002 quote by shark researcher George Burgess, who stated, “Falling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year, 15 times the number of fatalities attributable to sharks.” But where did Burgess obtain this number?
In July of the same year, Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope investigated the claim and contacted Burgess to find out where he obtained the figure of 150. Burgess told him that it was retrieved online from a press release by Club Direct, a British travel insurance organization. That press release did in fact state, “‘Coconuts kill around 150 people worldwide each year, which makes them about ten times more dangerous than sharks,’ says Brent Escott, managing director of Club Direct.”
So where did Club Direct get their figure of 150 deaths per year?
The Club Direct press release referenced a 1984 study entitled “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts” by Dr. Peter Barss in the Journal of Trauma. That paper never used a figure of 150, and only referenced a small number of anecdotal injuries due to falling coconuts. It has been surmised that the Club Direct writer may have extrapolated a number of 150 from the very small number of deaths Barss discussed.
Adams asked Barss to comment on the figure of 150 circulating at the time, to which he responded, “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.”
The Shark Research Institute published a page (which can still be viewed on the Internet Archive) on misquoted statistics and summarized the coconut-vs-shark myth.
Article by Dr. Peter Barss in the Journal of Trauma entitled “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts.” (The article received an Ig Nobel Prize, given annually at Harvard by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research in recognition of research that “cannot or should not be replicated.” The award was presented in 2001, notwithstanding that the paper had been published in 1984. Nine injuries in Papua New Guinea due to falling coconuts, none fatal. Barss notes that a coconut palm tree commonly reaches 25 meters in height, that a coconut can weigh two kilograms or more, and that a two-kilogram coconut falling 25 meters would have a velocity of 80 kilometers per hour on impact and a force of as much as 1,000 kilograms. Several victims suffered fractured skulls, were rendered comatose, etc. When we read the article, it said 9, not a 150!
That article concluded that “somebody pulled the figure about 150 deaths due to coconuts out of thin air.”
A 2001 study by Mulford et al entitled “Coconut Palm-Related Injuries in the Pacific Islands” compiled palm-related injuries over a 5-year period from 1994 through 1999. It cited 16 injuries from falling coconuts, with most being upper limb fractures or skull fractures, but no deaths were reported. All of the skull fractures occurred in children under the age of 10, and the study suggested parents warned children of the “dangers of playing beneath coconut trees.”
Falling Coconut Deaths
Although the claim that 150 people are killed each year by falling coconuts is incorrect, rare deaths have been known to occur. In 2013, for example, a man in Sri Lanka died after a coconut fell on his head as he was walking.
The newspaper clipping shown below was published in November 1966 and describes the death of a man who “stopped to eat lunch in the shade of a coconut palm in spite of warnings by fellow workers of the danger.” The man was struck in the face and later died from head injuries.
While people are very rarely killed by falling coconuts, the often-cited number of 150 deaths per year seems to be an exaggeration or misunderstanding of data presented in multiple studies on the topic. In fact, a “death per year” number does not seem to have been established at all, and the claim of 150 deaths per year certainly is not reflected in several highly-cited reports.
Every year during Discovery’s Shark Week, a long-standing myth is often circulated which claims deaths from falling coconuts greatly outnumber shark attack deaths. This erroneous “fact” is based on a figure that a travel insurance company “pulled out of thin air” over a decade ago.
Although a “deaths per year” number has not been established in regards to falling coconuts, it seems likely that the average number coconut-related deaths per year would join shark attack deaths in the single digits column.
Updated September 2, 2016
Originally published July 2015