data briefing:

It is perhaps difficult to construct the scenarios that led 39 people in 1997 to visit an accident and emergency department as a result of an injury caused by tea cosies. Or quite how piles of washing caused accidents bad enough to warrant nearly 4,000 people ending up in casualty. What could 394 people have been doing with their pants that necessitated a trip to hospital? And perhaps it's better not to delve too deeply into the 473 injuries caused by sex aids. No doubt there are perfectly credible and non-risible explanations for all these incidents.

More seriously, the Department of Trade and Industry's annual report on a sample survey of A&E departments around the UK reveals that home accidents account for a third of all adult cases treated in casualty, with falls of one sort or another accounting for an estimated 1.2 million visits nationally, or 40 per cent of all home accidents.

The DTI's home accident and leisure accident surveillance systems have been recording details of causes of accidents through a sample of NHS hospitals since 1976. The data is presented in absolute numbers (with scaled-up national estimates), but without population or use denominators - such as the total number of people using tea cosies - accident rates and risks cannot be calculated.

Nevertheless, apart from supplying irresistible 'incredible but true' newspaper headlines, the survey results provide valuable data for manufacturers and safety groups concerned with reducing injuries from consumer products and home and leisure activities.

The results also provide indications for targeting efforts to reduce accidents under Our Healthier Nation. This sets targets of a 20 per cent reduction in death rates from accidents and a 10 per cent reduction in serious injuries from them - to be achieved by 2010.

Overall, trends in accidental injury deaths show them in decline. For example, death rates in children from accidents have declined from around 17 per 100,000 in 1970 to a low of around four per 100,000 in 1996. And compared with most European countries, England has one of the lowest death rates from car accidents. But child pedestrian death rates are among the worst in Europe, and between 1991 and 1996 total deaths from drug poisoning increased by around 30 per cent.

Although the DTI survey shows that 6.1 million people with non-fatal accidental injuries from leisure or home activities end up in casualty each year, around a third of people with injuries did not wait for treatment, were only examined or received no treatment. Nearly a quarter are referred to their GP or an outpatient clinic, and just 2.5 per cent stay in hospital - on average for around nine days.

Finally, if you have sustained an injury while reading this and have to go to hospital, you will be one of about 3,400 a year for whom printed paper or magazines were in some way involved in their hospitalisation.

Copies of the DTI's latest home and leisure accident survey reports are available free:

0171-215 2114.