Cranberries lead singer, Dolores O’Riordan, drowned accidentally due to alcohol intoxication, coroner Shirley Radcliffe told an inquest in Westminster this month. Toxicology tests showed there were 330mg of alcohol per 100mls of blood, approximately four times the legal limit for driving. O’Riordan, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was described by her bandmates as a ‘dear friend’. She was 46 when she died in January 2018 at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, where she was staying while recording.
The band’s statement following the inquest described the impact of her loss. “Today we continue to struggle to come to terms with what happened,” they said. “Our heartfelt condolences go out to Dolores’ children and her family and our thoughts are with them today. Dolores will live on eternally in her music. To see how much of a positive impact she had on people’s lives has been a source of great comfort to us.”
The premature death of Dolores O’Riordan also brings to mind two other tragic deaths in recent years. In February 2012, Whitney Houston drowned accidentally in the bath at the Beverley Hilton Hotel. The coroner reported that cocaine and heart disease also played a role in Houston’s death. Drug intoxication and immersion in a bathtub of water were also factors in the tragic death of Whitney Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, aged just 22 years old.
Accidental Drowning, Alcohol and Drugs
These cases draw attention to the risks of using alcohol and drugs around water. Research studies have looked at the connection between accidental drowning and substance use.
This Finnish study, for example, looked at 1697 unintentional drownings in victims aged 15 and over. They found that 303 deaths were boating-related and 1394 deaths were non-boating related. In 65% of the boating drownings and 61.8% of the non-boating drownings, the victims tested positive for alcohol. Their study showed that psychotropic drugs played a role in 14.5% of cases – either alone or in combination with alcohol.
In the US, accidental drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention name alcohol use as a key factor that influences the risk of drowning. “Among adolescents and adults, alcohol use is involved in up to 70% of deaths associated with water recreation, almost a quarter of Emergency Department visits for drowning, and about one in five reported boating deaths. Alcohol influences balance, coordination, and judgment, and its effects are heightened by sun exposure and heat.”
When it comes to deaths by accidental drowning in the bath, The Irish Times reports that is it very rare amongst adults. “Official statistics from the UK show 255 people died in accidental drownings there last year, of which 10 occurred in a bath, which is just under 4 per cent.”
Why Do Alcohol and Drugs Increase the Risk of Drowning?
There are the physical and mental effects of alcohol and drugs – including the impacts on cognitive function and the central nervous system. Alcohol is a depressant, which slows down the body’s processes and reactions. Heavy alcohol users often experience memory loss or ‘blackouts’, for example, when they cannot recall their thoughts or actions whilst intoxicated. Substances can also increase risk-taking behaviours and judgment too, as well as decreasing a person’s ability to survive in water if they become submerged. Drowning also completely prevents people calling for help when they get into trouble.
The obvious solution is not to go near water when drinking or using drugs. Always avoid planning activities near or on the water, when alcohol and drugs are going to be involved.
When people are under the influence of alcohol and drugs, however, decision-making processes are often impaired. Whilst intoxicated, some people will decide to take a bath or jump into a pool or even swim in the sea – similar to the way certain people decide to drink-drive, even though they had no intention of doing so when sober. Friends and family can play a role in looking out for one another in these circumstances – but ultimately, they cannot be held responsible for another person’s actions.
The only way to be safe, if alcohol or drug taking leads to increasingly risky behaviours, is to seek out help. With counselling and peer support, some people will be able to moderate their alcohol and drug use to safer levels. Others will find that abstinence is the best solution – particularly where addiction has developed and they cannot control their drinking or drug-taking once they start.