A Penny’s Not Going to Kill You

by Ernest Ersatz, Improbable Research staff

Although people say that “a penny’s not going to kill you,” that’s not strictly true. Sometimes a penny will kill you.

There are several cases on record where ingesting a penny has killed a child,1 but, this report deals only with adult misadventures. Children have respect for pennies. Too often, adults do not.

Yen and A Quarter

Pennies are not uniquely a source of danger. There are two notable and curious cases,2,3 which I will not go into here except briefly, of other kinds of coins being involved with death.

[caption id="attachment_55490" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Sectional view of the nose, mouth, pharynx, etc."][/caption]

A 50-yen coin and/or a 100-yen coin can kill you, as researchers at Osaka University Medical School handled discovered. As they describe it:
A 28-year-old male was found dead on a bed in a hotel. He had two electric wires, the ends of which were fastened to each coin (50 and 100 yen); the coins were attached to a left hypochondrial region and a left side of the chest. The other ends of the wires were connected to a time switch, which had been connected to a plug top (100 V, 60 Hz alternating current).... The cause of death was thus judged to be suicidal electrocution. It seems that suicide was influenced by a “Manual Book of Suicide,” which was found in his bag.

However, it appears that a quarter cannot kill you, at least not if you are already dead. Investigators at the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Department made that discovery, which they describe thusly:
A 69-year-old Chinese woman... was found at autopsy to have a quarter in her air passages. Inquiry showed that her family had placed the coin in her mouth at the time of death according to traditional Chinese funeral practices. This practice is apparently not widely known among forensic pathologists.

Other than these two cases, however, the scope of the current investigation is limited to pennies.

Penny Potency

Although I was not able to find a case in which a single penny killed an adult human being, adult death-by-single-penny is not a far-fetched theoretical abstraction. Far from it. The evidence below, coupled with the additional evidence I alluded to in the previous paragraph (see especially footnote 1, referenced in the first sentence of that paragraph, which is the second paragraph of this report) suggests that it could easily, or fairly easily happen, and perhaps already has happened or is about to happen. Maybe it has just happened, but so very recently that there has not been time for me to persuade the editors that they should re-compose this page to include the information, thus publishing a report that is truly up to date rather than almost up to date.

There is no controversy as to whether several pennies, together, can do you in. Pennies in quantity unquestionably can be instruments of death.

Let’s look at the medical record.

Twenty Pennies Can Do It

[caption id="attachment_55491" align="alignleft" width="220" caption="Vertical section of the larynx and upper part of the trachea. "][/caption]

Twenty pennies can kill you, if you are a hyena. Investigators at the Detroit Zoological Institute explain how they discovered this fact:
An 11-yr-old captive-born female striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) acutely developed lameness and swelling of the left front foot with anorexia, depression, and lethargy. Hematologic evaluation revealed regenerative anemia, azotemia, and other mild serum electrolyte and mineral abnormalities. Twenty radiographically visible coins and 10 coin fragments were removed by laparotomy and gastrotomy following unsuccessful medical therapy. The animal died during anesthetic recovery.... The case highlights the risk posed by penny ingestion for subsequent zinc toxicosis in captive omnivores.4

Twenty Times Twenty Can

Four hundred sixty-one pennies can kill you. Investigators at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center claim credit for the discovery. In their words:
This is the first reported case of human fatality associated with zinc intoxication following a massive ingestion of coins. Four hundred and sixty-one coins were removed from the gastrointestinal tract of a schizophrenic patient during the course of hospitalization. Many of the post-1981 pennies, which consist primarily of zinc, showed severe corrosion due to their prolonged contact with acidic gastric juice. The patient presented with clinical manifestations consistent with the local corrosive as well as systemic effects of zinc intoxication and died 40 days after admission with multi-system organ failure.5


My preliminary research indicates that most coin-related deaths in adults—at least most of the deaths reported in the official medical literature—involve American coins, and most of those coins are pennies.

What of other coins?

Many nations have coins that cause medical problems. My report about deaths due to those coins will be reported in a series of separate publications. This report, as I have stated several times, deals mostly with pennies.

It may be true that American coins smaller or larger than a penny are seldom involved directly in causing death. One cannot rule out the possibility, though, that people are more careful in how they use these other coins, because each coin is worth more than a humble penny. That is mere speculation, though. Based only on the available evidence, one must conclude that while a penny can do you in, a dime’s not going to kill you.


1. See, for example, “Esophagoaortic Perforation by Foreign Body (Coin) Causing Sudden Death in a 3-Year-Old Child,” M. Dahiya and J.S. Denton, American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, vol. 20, no. 2, June 1999, pp. 184–8.

2. For the full report, see “A Suicidal Case of Electrocution With Hypnotic Drug Poisoning: An Autopsy Report” [article in Japanese], M Yamazaki, M Terada et al., Nippon Hoigaku Zasshi [Japanese Journal of Legal Medicine], vol. 52, no. 2, April 1997, pp. 95–101.

3.For the full report, see “A Coin in the Airway,” C. Rogers, B. Chang, and R. Shibuya, American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology, vol. 15, no. 1, March 1994, pp. 91–2.

4. “Zinc Toxicosis in a Captive Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena),” D.W. Agnew, R.B. Barbiers, et al., Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, vol. 30, no. 3, September 1999, pp. 431–4.

5. “Zinc Toxicity Following Massive Coin Ingestion,” D.R. Bennett, et al., The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, vol. 18, no. 2, June 1997, pp. 148–53.


This article is republished with permission from the May-June 2008 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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