Can kids choke on balloons?

Parenting news turns fun into fear with a little simple math. |  Hybrid  on  Unsplash

Parenting news turns fun into fear with a little simple math. | Hybrid on Unsplash

The only thing my son loves more than a room full of balloons is a pin with which he can pop balloons. 

But according to a Consumer Product Safety Commission Safety Alert, those balloons are serious hazards. Balloons are the "leading cause of suffocation death" among children. That sounds big, perhaps big enough to make me stop buying confetti balloons.

Here's three ways scary news stories inflate the case against balloons. 

"Leading" is misleading

According to the CPSC's 2016 Toy-Related Deaths and Injuries Report, one child died from a balloon-related injury in 2016. Six children died from other toy-related causes, none of them suffocation. A balloon wasn't just the leading cause of toy suffocation. It was the only cause of toy suffocation. 

Grouping makes dangers larger than they appear

Including data from multiple years makes the danger loom larger. Imagine a news story that began with five balloon-related deaths. Balloons would look pretty scary. But to get to five, you'd need to have counted deaths from a three-year period. To get to 110, you'd need to go back 45 years, which is exactly what St. Louis Children's Hospital did for its warning to parents, using the death count since 1975.

Unfinished word problems are scarier than finished ones

A Q&A from Fisher Price advising against birthday party balloons makes them sound downright terrifying: "...each year over 100,000 children under age 4 are treated in hospital emergency rooms for toy-related injuries, and 17 children die. Approximately one-third of the deaths result from choking; and one-third of the choking deaths result from latex balloons."

Although that sentence starts with a huge number, 100,000 is irrelevant here: that number refers to the total number of emergency room visits related to toys, but does not tell us a single thing about balloons. But that 100,000 provides a context that makes us scared of the fractions that follow.

Simply finishing the math problem from the Q&A can make us a lot less nervous. 17 children die from toy-related injuries. One third of those children die from choking on toys. One third of the children who die from choking on toys choked on a latex balloon. That's 17 * 1/3 * 1/3, or 1.89 children per year. 

Two children dying from balloon deaths is of course two too many, but it's also a considerably smaller number than you would expect from a toy made to sound so dangerous in the news. 

Bottom line: when we use terms like "leading cause of suffocation death," or group deaths from many years together, or accept scary-sounding fractions without finishing the math problem, we get a skewed sense of danger. I'm off to buy those confetti balloons. 

Have you found an unfinished math problem in a scary parenting story? I want to hear about it!