If you are unfortunate enough to be standing under a coconut tree when a coconut falls, you could be seriously injured. Surely, serious head trauma could occur. But would it kill you? According to many, many accounts, a falling coconut is quite deadly and you are more likely to be killed by one than by a shark. A quite precise number on the death toll from coconuts is usually given: 150 people a year. Is this true?
First of all, you are not very likely to be killed by a shark, even if you spend a lot of time in the ocean. But, it does seem to be more likely than to happen to be standing in just the right spot when a heavy coconut falls from a tree. Sure, 150 people worldwide are very few people. But a coconut? Certainly, this is too fantastic to be true.
Indeed, it is too fantastic to be true. Sharks weren’t chosen at random for this urban legend. The original number is often attributed to an expert on sharks, George Burgess, Director of the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File (FISAF). Burgess, presumably, was trying to show just how rarely sharks kill people way back in 1984 and the statement was attributed to him in a press release by FISAF 1“Falling Coconuts Kill More People Than Shark Attacks.” UniSci – International Science News, UniScience News Net, Inc, 23 May 2002, www.unisci.com/stories/20022/0523024.htm.
Falling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year, 15 times the number of fatalities attributable to sharks,” said George Burgess, Director of the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File and a noted shark researcher.
“The reality is that, on the list of potential dangers encountered in aquatic recreation, sharks are right at the bottom of the list,” said Burgess who was one of three scientists participating Tuesday in a National Sea Grant College Program and NOAA Fisheries sponsored press briefing on sharks and the risks of shark attacks at the National Press Club.
150 deaths were something like 15 times the number attributable to sharks, which would mean sharks kill around ten people a year, worldwide. Since then, the number has been repeated by thousands of sources who don’t bother to do any research. A quick book search revealed dozens of books that repeat this claim without reservation.
The claim has also been taken seriously by local governments. In 2002, officials in Queensland, Australia removed coconut trees from their beaches due to the fear of falling coconuts. And, there are signs in Honolulu, written in English and Japanese, warning of the danger with a handy graphic showing people running from their lives from rogue coconuts bent on destruction.
These exaggerated claims seem to have begun after a report was published out of Papua New Guinea in The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery in 1984. This report described a 4-year review of trauma admissions to the Provincial Hospital, Alotau, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. The study found that 2.5% of the admissions were due to patients being struck by coconuts. This amounted to 4 people with head injuries, two who required surgery, and two who died instantly after being struck. 2BARSS, PETER. “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts.” The Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care, vol. 24, no. 11, 1984, pp. 990–991., doi:10.1097/00005373-198411000-00012.
Another similar study was published in 2001 in the ANZ Journal of Surgery. This study examined coconut-related injuries in the Solomon Islands by reviewing trauma records from the Central Referral Hospital, specifically patents referred to the Department of Surgery and Orthopaedics between January 1994 and December 1999. In this approximately six-year period, 3.4% of all injuries were related to the coconut palm.
The vast majority of injuries were due to people falling from coconut trees. This makes sense as the coconut palm is an important part of life in the islands. 85 people were injured from falling. Three patients had an actual coconut palm tree fall on them. One patient injured his food by kicking a coconut palm. The patients injured by falling coconuts sustained skull or upper limb fractures. Interestingly, they were all under ten years of age.3Mulford, J. S., et al. “Coconut Palm-Related Injuries in the Pacific Islands.” ANZ Journal of Surgery, vol. 71, no. 1, 2001, pp. 32–34., doi:10.1046/j.1440-1622.2001.02021.x.
Why so many children? Well, children play under coconut trees and I would guess that parents often have young children go out and gather coconut fruits from under trees while they are busy with more important matters. No deaths were reported.
A more recent study from the Solomon Islands yielded similar results. Out of 3455 admissions in a 3-year period, 49 were from coconut tree trauma. This makes coconut injuries the commonest cause of hospital admission in the area (Kirkira). 35 of these injuries were from falls, 12 from falling branches, and two from falling coconuts. Most of the injuries occurred in males from 6 to 14 years of age.4Rehan, Rajan, et al. “The Dangers to Children from Coconut Tree Trauma, in KiraKira, Solomon Islands: a Retrospective Clinical Audit.” Archives of Public Health, vol. 74, no. 1, 2016, doi:10.1186/s13690-016-0125-0.
Clearly, most coconut-related injuries are caused by falling from trees. Children may climb the trees for fun and, at other times, the trees are climbed to dislodge coconuts. Interestingly, according to these studies, more people are injured from falling limbs than from falling coconuts. Note, also, that very few actual deaths were reported.
You should also notice that these injuries seemed to be sustained by local peoples. This is important in teasing out the hype, as, to make the statistic seem more fantastic, the claim often mentions ‘tourists’ specifically. YOU are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than by a shark. Not a kid in the Solomon island, but YOU during your summer vacation.
It is the original study from 1984 that seems to be the ultimate source. As you can see, only two deaths were reported during the study period. It turns out that these death reports were anecdotal and one was not even during the study period. So, the death toll in the actual study may have been even less, as in zero. Regardless, this number was used to extrapolate death rates to the rest of the world, presuming that other parts of the world where coconut palms are common experience similar death rates.
This claim was further popularized by a press release from a British travel insurance company called Club Direct. This release, written by the managing director Brent Escott, says, “Coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year, which makes them about ten times more dangerous than sharks.”
There were, at the time, between 70 to 100 shark attacks annually that resulted in 5 to 15 deaths. So, as mentioned above, this would make falling coconuts about 15 times more deadly than sharks. It was from this report that George Burgess derived his 150 deaths a year claim.
Incidentally, in 2020, The International Shark Attack File, which Burgess directed, reported 129 alleged shark attacks, 57 confirmed unprovoked attacks and 39 provoked bites.5“Yearly Worldwide Shark Attack Summary.” Florida Museum, 27 Jan. 2021, www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks/yearly-worldwide-summary/.
I’d like to point out that it is often erroneously reported that Peter Barrs, the author of the original study, claimed that 150 people were killed by falling coconuts each year. Barrs did not attempt to calculate the number of deaths worldwide. While he may have helped to fuel the hype by saying that coconut can fall with a force of one metric ton and by including the two anecdotal ‘dead-on-the-scene’ incidents, he does not seem to deserve the ridicule he has received. Others have published similar papers.
Given the very limited data we have, it seems you are extremely unlikely to have a coconut fall on your head while you’re wandering along the beach. And your chances of dying because from one, even if the 150 number turns out to be true, is remote compared to your chances of being struck by lightning. Unlike falling coconuts, we do have fairly accurate statistics regarding shark attacks and lightning strikes.
On the other hand, we have no actual statistics on the number of deaths from falling coconuts. It seems fairly clear, though, that 150 people a year is a stretch. A review of the studies we have shows almost no actual deaths, though many injuries.
What if I told you that 2000 people per year were killed by lightning? A pertinent question would then be ‘how many people are injured by lightning but not killed?’ In researching this, you might find that statistics on lightning-strike injuries are unreliable and not as accurate as the data on deaths. Injuries are under-reported compared to deaths. So, how many more people are injured than actually die? This matters as it speaks to how deadly lightning actually is. The same holds true of shark bites and falling coconuts. Asking your chances of being killed by a falling coconut is not the same as asking your chances of being injured by one. Let’s say that 150 people a year ARE killed by falling coconuts but that thousands are injured. This would make falling coconuts seem dangerous, but less deadly.
Right now, we do not know how many people are injured or killed by falling coconuts but we do know that falling limbs are just as dangerous, if not more dangerous. And, furthermore, we know that the great majority of coconut-related injuries come from falling from a coconut palm. Snopes claims that there is no way to debunk the claim with 100% certainty.6Kasprak, Alex. “Do Falling Coconuts Kill More People Than Sharks Each Year?” Snopes, Snopes Media Group, Inc. , 30 May 2017, www.snopes.com/fact-check/coconuts-kill-more-sharks/. I disagree. The claim is debunked. We do not need to prove how many deaths occur, only that the original claim is not based on actual statistical data. If accurate statistics are ever compiled (and I doubt they ever will be), I do not think the number will be anywhere near 150.
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|↲1||“Falling Coconuts Kill More People Than Shark Attacks.” UniSci – International Science News, UniScience News Net, Inc, 23 May 2002, www.unisci.com/stories/20022/0523024.htm.|
|↲2||BARSS, PETER. “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts.” The Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care, vol. 24, no. 11, 1984, pp. 990–991., doi:10.1097/00005373-198411000-00012.|
|↲3||Mulford, J. S., et al. “Coconut Palm-Related Injuries in the Pacific Islands.” ANZ Journal of Surgery, vol. 71, no. 1, 2001, pp. 32–34., doi:10.1046/j.1440-1622.2001.02021.x.|
|↲4||Rehan, Rajan, et al. “The Dangers to Children from Coconut Tree Trauma, in KiraKira, Solomon Islands: a Retrospective Clinical Audit.” Archives of Public Health, vol. 74, no. 1, 2016, doi:10.1186/s13690-016-0125-0.|
|↲5||“Yearly Worldwide Shark Attack Summary.” Florida Museum, 27 Jan. 2021, www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks/yearly-worldwide-summary/.|
|↲6||Kasprak, Alex. “Do Falling Coconuts Kill More People Than Sharks Each Year?” Snopes, Snopes Media Group, Inc. , 30 May 2017, www.snopes.com/fact-check/coconuts-kill-more-sharks/.|