The Top 5 Causes of Accidental Home Injury Deaths—and How to Prevent Them

A look at some simple (and inexpensive) ways to reduce the threat of serious injuries in your house

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Although we all like to think of our homes as sanctuaries of comfort and security, the typical American house harbors some significant safety risks. In fact, every year more than 18,000 Americans die from accidental injuries that take place in the house, making our homes the second-most-common location—behind only cars on the road—of such fatalities. But even amid the worst recession since World War II, homeowners can take steps to reduce these risks, says Meri-K Appy, the president of the Home Safety Council. In an interview with U.S. News, Appy discussed the five leading causes of unintentional home injury deaths and offered simple, cost-effective ways to increase household safety.

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1. Falls: Falling is the leading cause of unintentional home injury deaths; it claims nearly 6,000 lives per year, according to the Home Safety Council. And although there are all sorts of ways to reduce this risk, Appy recommends that homeowners install grab bars in their bathtubs and showers. "The reason I worry about bathrooms is because if you fall in the tub or the shower, you are falling onto such a hard surface," which can result in a more severe injury, Appy says. Although many consumers recoil at the though of grab bars—which are often associated with nursing homes and elderly-care facilities—Appy says such perceptions are outdated. "The new models that are now on the market are much more attractive than they ever used to be," she says. "So let's get rid of the idea that they are going to be ugly." More recent models, she says, are designed to complement the other items in your bathroom and can be easily installed.

2. Poisoning: The second-leading cause of accidental home injury deaths—poisoning—takes nearly 5,000 lives each year. And for young adults and people in their middle ages, it's actually the top cause. "It's kind of the Heath Ledger scenario, where people are perhaps on a prescription drug, or maybe more than one, and then they get a cold and they take a decongestant, and then maybe they add a drink to that," Appy says. "It is the mixing up of things without realizing that that combination can be actually deadly." To reduce this risk, Appy says that anyone mixing medicines should contact the Poison Help hotline at (800) 222-1222. "It is staffed 24 hours a day," she says. Staff members can tell you if a given combination of medicines—say, a prescription drug and NyQuil—is safe or not, she says. In addition, parents should make sure to keep prescription and over-the-counter medicines—as well as other harmful household products—out of the reach of children.

3. Fire and burns: Home fires and burns claim more than 3,000 lives a year, making it the third-leading cause of accidental home injury deaths. "The No. 1 thing I advise people is to have plenty of working smoke alarms and to hold fire drills twice a year," Appy says. In addition, anyone building a new home should have fire sprinklers installed in the house.

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4. Airway obstruction: Airway obstruction—which includes choking, suffocation, and strangulation—claims about 1,000 lives a year. It is the fourth-leading cause of accidental home injury deaths and a particular concern for young children. In fact, many deaths that had originally been attributed to sudden infant death syndrome have since been reclassified as airway-obstruction fatalities. "Many of these deaths are actually [due to] suffocation because of an unsafe sleep environment," Appy says. "Either there is a lot of stuff in the crib or maybe blankets or stuffed animals, [which] can cover the baby's airway passages." To create a safe sleep environment, "the crib should be virtually empty, except for the baby," she says. "And the baby should be put to sleep on his or her back." Parents of older children need to be on the lookout for smaller items—like coins or toys—that can clog up air passageways if swallowed. "If [the object] is small enough to fit through a toilet paper roll, it's a danger to a small child," she says. "And often, unfortunately, things are kind of left on the floor, maybe under the sofa cushions, or it could be a coin or an older child's Legos."

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5. Water: Drowning and submersions in water account for some 800 deaths a year. Again, water can be a particular threat to children. "People don't realize that a very young child can drown in as little as an inch or two or water," Appy says. "Certainly, a backyard pool, a bathtub, any amount of standing water can be a deadly danger to a small child." There are certain steps parents can take to reduce the threat of water-related deaths, such as installing a fence at least 4 feet high with a self-closing and self-latching gate around their pool. But the best protection against the risk of water is old-fashioned vigilance. "You have to be within an arm's reach of a child and paying attention. We call it touch supervision—you are looking at the child, and you can reach out and touch the child," she says. "Never, never let your guard down if there is water around."