Fatal Accident With Metal Straw Highlights a Risk

A British woman was impaled by a metal straw after falling at her home, a coroner said in an inquest this week that highlighted the potential dangers of metal straws. Such straws have surged in popularity as cities, states and even countries have banned single-use plastic straws.

The woman, Elena Struthers-Gardner, 60, who had a disability, fell and sustained a traumatic brain injury in November when the 10-inch straw pierced her eye, according to the coroner’s report, which was released on Monday.

“As a consequence of the fall, a stainless steel straw that was in a glass Kilner-style cup Mrs. Struthers-Gardner was carrying penetrated her left eye,” the report said, referring to a glass jar similar to a Mason jar that often has a lid. It called her death an accident.

The report, released in Bournemouth, about two hours southwest of London, said that she fell at her home on Nov. 22, and was taken to Southampton General Hospital, where she died the next day.

Ms. Struthers-Gardner’s wife, Mandy, said in a statement read at the inquest that her partner had been a former jockey and was prone to falls after a horseback riding injury when she was 21. She had scoliosis — a curvature of the spine — and had dealt with substance abuse issues, her wife said.

Ms. Struthers-Gardner’s wife did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

A British straw ban will go into effect in April, but the worldwide environmental push against single-use straws has encountered opposition from some caregivers and advocates for people with disabilities. They have voiced worries about the safety of rigid straws and the overall availability of straws for people who are unable to drink without them.

“Clearly great care should be taken when using these metal straws,” said Brendan Allen, an assistant coroner, according to The Bournemouth Daily Echo. “There is no give in them at all.”

“It seems to me these metal straws should not be used with any form of lid that holds them in place,” he added. “It seems the main problem here is if the lid hadn’t been in place, the straw would have moved away.”

Kim Sauder, a Toronto-based blogger and Ph.D. student in disability studies, said that Ms. Struthers-Gardner’s death was a cautionary tale.

“I don’t know if the ‘reusable straw,’ as the environmentally minded person conceives of them, are actually common enough yet to really know what dangers they pose,” Ms. Sauder said Wednesday.

“A straw ban is nothing but environmental theater,” Ms. Sauder tweeted last year. “The greatest accomplishment of the straw ban is genuinely the bigotry it has emboldened against disabled people.”

Many people with disabilities rely on straws to drink, Ms. Sauder said, but could have difficulties finding them in states and cities, such as California and Seattle, that have banned or restricted single-use straws.

Starbucks plans to eliminate its ubiquitous green plastic straws at 28,000 of its locations around the world in 2020.

It’s not easy being green for Starbucks, however.

In 2016, the coffee chain recalled stainless steel straws sold at its shops because they posed an injury risk. At the time, Starbucks said it had received reports of three children in the United States and one in Canada who had been lacerated by the straws, which were sold with reusable beverage containers.

Dentists say that improper use of metal or glass straws can also be bad for teeth.

“Clearly, chewing on a metal or glass straw can be hazardous to your teeth and your health,” said Dr. Timothy Chase of SmilesNY Cosmetic and Implant Dentistry in New York. “Just like we tell people not to chew on pens.”

Dr. Chase added that it’s important to keep reusable straws clean to avoid infection-causing bacteria.

Christina Trapani, the owner of Eco Maniac Company, which sells reusable straws, called Ms. Struthers-Gardner’s accident “horrible.”

“It’s an unfortunate example,” Ms. Trapani said. “Hopefully it won’t impact the movement.”

Her company, which is based in Virginia Beach, sells steel, paper, glass, bamboo and silicone reusable straws.

“Metal straws are, hands down, the most popular,” said Ms. Trapani, who started her company in 2008. “I’m sure that there will be some concern, especially with children and people with disabilities.” She said that flexible silicone straws were a practical alternative.

Americans use 170 million to 390 million straws a day, according to estimates from market research firms. (A widely cited statistic places the number higher, at 500 million, but that estimate is based on the research of a 9-year-old boy.)

Those numbers, along with a viral video of a marine biologist removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose in 2015, have influenced policymakers.


Christine Hauser contributed reporting.