Nothing to fear (but a glass of water)

As someone who routinely pours 200-400ml of sterile salt water into people’s lungs without any significant side effects, I am often struck by how strange it is to be assured, with the insuperable certainty of folk wisdom, that I could drown on (or is it in?) a cup of water. Even medical mythbuster websites suggest this rumor is true. The innocuous-appearing mug on our table holds the key to our undoing. But it’s not all that true, except in the sense that you could drown in a pillow, or on your arm, a pork tenderloin, or a pet cat. According to the best medical literature I could find, 85% of survivors of near drowning aspirated less than 22ml per kilogram of body weight. In the average person, that’s about a liter and a half. Now I’m not recommending that you aspirate your cup of water (particularly not a super-sized convenience store Mega-Gulp), but the probability that a normal cup of water will drown you even if it’s sprayed directly into your lungs, is exceedingly low, if not zero. So my question is, why is this such a compelling rumor? What is the social and cultural void this story fills? Is this one way we have to negotiate our fear of death? Is it a way to reinforce the risks associated with the ingestion of certain substances (if water can kill you, just think about a pint of Guinness)? A cultural memory of the time when rabies was rampant?

Finally, I would pose the question: are the Latter-day Saints uniquely situated to answer this question given our canonized revelation about the relationship between water and dark forces?


  1. Nice. I haven’t heard the cup-o-water warning before; but I have heard the drown in an inch if water warning. Is that true?

    How would one actually drown in a cup of water? Anyway, perhaps the existence of the rumor functions to keep people far from the edge of drowning. A message to always be careful.

    It’s been a while since looking, but isn’t the dark forces on the water and isolated instance, not a universal axiom?

  2. Would you mind elaborating on the water and dark forces combination?

    I would think most LDS would associate water with baptism or the sacrament.

  3. you can drown in an inch of water the same way you can drown in nothing (eg dead drunk with your face against the carpet).
    dark forces and water go back to Tiamat and before. For LDS there were images of the destroyer riding the waters perhaps culturally conditioned by risks of river-drowning and steamboat explosions but also drawing on older currents regarding the instability and danger of water.

  4. Interesting about dark forces on the water. I don’t know the Hebrew, really, but Genesis 1:2 is an interesting take on this.

  5. What is the social and cultural void this story fills?

    I have always assumed the problem was that people leave children in the bathtub thinking it is not that much water when, in fact, it doesn’t take very much water to be very dangerous for said small children.

  6. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Are there places other than D&C 61 that address the destroyer on the H2O?

    Personally, I have experience more hazard to my health by putting a Cup-o-noodles down the right tube than by a cup-o-water down the wrong tube.

  7. StillConfused says:

    I don’t know that I would drown if a cup of water went into my lungs but I would certainly freak out!!!!

  8. Is the face-in-the-carpet really drowning, or would it be more properly classified as suffocation?

  9. I think the reason it persists is that everyone knows a friend or family member (often both) who has died in a cup of water. That why at my house we keep all our cups on a high shelf and our water is always clearly marked as such.

    I wonder about lots of these things. Like the 10 second rule for dropped food. From what I understand if there is anything there to contaminate it, it’s on there upon contact. Why give 10 seconds?

  10. 9–very nice. as for 10sec rule, people have actually studied this, and different studies give different numbers. the actual contamination that matters is bacterial, and longer contact does give higher titer contamination (of course the 10-second rule does not apply to food that falls into the septic tank).
    8–depends on how you define drowning–do you mean asphyxiation caused by high-volume aspiration of water? if so, it is impossible to drown with a glass of water. if you mean laryngeal spasm or non-specific asphyxiation, then I guess you could “drown,” though you could do the same face down on the floor or with the cup over your mouth and nose.

  11. Saline solution will not drown you but probably fresh water will stop your heart by upsetting the electrolyte balance as it pumps through the heart.

  12. Or so I have heard. What do I know?

    I heard about a friend of a friend who drowned and was revived. She lost all dread of death because the experience was so … wonderful. She said that there were lights flashing and music playing. Is this the darkness of water?

  13. 11. it takes a lot more than a cup of fresh water to shift electrolytes to a dangerous level. 12. Most scientists believe that is how the brain responds to markedly dropping oxygen levels, though it’s okay to be skeptical about the details.
    I don’t think people know 100% why Mesopotamians and their heirs found water to represent darkness. Most people I’ve encountered say it’s a natural dualism between land, which can accommodate settlement, produces crops, and doesn’t kill you if you fall asleep in it, and water, which does not offer the same support.

  14. She said that there were lights flashing and music playing

    Pardon the pun, but that just whets my appetite.

    What kind of music? I am assuming it wasn’t Screaming Jay Hawkins or anything of that ilk. And lights, are we talking disco ball? What?

  15. #13: If you’ve ever been out on a lake at night, it’s not hard to conjure up images of what could be lurking right below the surface. Horror movies aside, it’s a combination of peacefulness and, once your mind starts to wander, a bit of creepiness.

  16. StillConfused says:

    I think the 10 second rule is more of a joke than anyone actually believing that the germs are less. I use it as an excuse to still consume something that I really don’t want to have to throw away. I have also heard it as the 2 second rule and the three second rule. The number can fluctuate to reflect your desired outcome.

  17. There was strong, strong sentiment on the mission that the proscription against missionary swimming was directly tied to the dark-water, destroyer-on-the-water stuff.

  18. What really intrigues me, SMB, is the background of your opening line:

    “As someone who routinely pours 200-400ml of sterile salt water into people’s lungs without any significant side effects.”

    And here I had no idea that you were a military interrogator.

    So, how long have you been in Iraq? And how’s the weather down there? Is it as hot and dusty as everyone says?