ATLANTA—With more than four such deaths occurring over the past seven years, safety advocates are once again concerned about fatalities resulting from falling down a laundry chute and breaking one's neck, an accident that is still among the top 600,000 killers of Americans.
Although other deadly mishaps have increased during the first half of 2008—most notably shooting oneself in the head after mistaking a handgun for a telephone, which jumped four spots to the No. 548,219 most common cause of death—Dr. Lawrence Dunn, a public health expert and spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cautioned that citizens should remain aware of laundry chute– related fatalities.
"Lethal spinal-cord injuries involving laundry chutes may not be as prevalent as deaths stemming from inserting too many peas into one's nose, but that doesn't mean they don't occur," said Dunn, referring to Nasal-Legume Asphyxiation, the nation's No. 499,987 killer. "Of the approximately 40 people who fall down laundry chutes every six years, a consistent 10 percent continue to break their necks and die."
Dunn also outlined the economic impact of nonfatal injuries attributed to laundry-chute mishaps. These accidents have been blamed for more than $350 in lost productivity in 2007 alone, just $50 less than incidents involving the eating of thumbtacks while sleepwalking.
Though the statistics presented by the CDC appear dire, there are some who remain hopeful the trend can be turned around. According to the Michael Baron Foundation, a charitable organization established to reduce fatalities caused by falling down a laundry chute and breaking one's neck, there are several ways to lower the incidence of this extremely specific accident.
"As with any other health and safety issue, the key to prevention is education," said David Baron, who started the foundation after his son was killed in a Cleveland-area Regency Hotel laundry chute in 1997. "If you accidentally drop a Nerf football or, as in Michael's case, half a Snickers bar down a laundry chute, walk down to the basement to retrieve it. At the very least enter the chute feetfirst."
Added Baron, "It is important to remember that the attitude of 'falling down a laundry chute and breaking my neck will never happen to me or my family' is exactly what puts people at risk for these types of horrible accidents."
According to researchers, it is nearly impossible to predict who is most at risk of succumbing to falling down a laundry chute and breaking one's neck. Baron said that of the 28 people who have been killed in this manner over the past 45 years, nearly every ethnicity and age group is represented, adding, "laundry chute–neck breakage is everyone's problem."
"Falling down a laundry chute and breaking your neck does not discriminate," Baron said. "Anyone who has access to a shaft long enough to build up the velocity sufficient to fracture any of the C1 through C7 vertebrae is a potential victim."
"It is, however, one of the few cases in which obesity is beneficial," Baron continued. "An overweight person will often become wedged in the chute, preventing a fatal fall."
Baron was careful to point out that people with weight problems should still take necessary precautions when working with or around laundry chutes. Citing statistics gathered by the Melinda Havemeyer Foundation, Baron said that becoming stuck in a laundry chute and starving to death because the rest of one's family is on vacation in Arizona is currently the No. 657,982 killer in the United States.
In addition to increasing public awareness of deaths caused by falling down a laundry chute and severing the spinal cord, Baron suggested several direct precautionary measures. These include keeping a hamper full of extra pillows at the bottom of laundry chutes at all times, placing large, easy-to-read warning placards around chute openings, and moving to a house without a laundry chute.
"Until someone comes up with a safer means of conveying dirty laundry from the top floor of a house to its basement, this is the reality we have to live with," Baron said.