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December 18, 2009 6:15 PM

Legal Remedies: Don't Put a Cork in It

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Jim Thornton

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Q:
Holiday party season is here. Besides making a pass at my boss's spouse, is there anything else that could cause me trouble once the bubbly flows?

A: When it comes to bubbly induced mayhem, the worst trouble begins in the eye of the beholder--literally. In France, wild-flying champagne corks are a leading cause of eye injury year-round. Here in the United States, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) suggests the threat peaks during the holidays as droves of heady celebrants break out the good stuff, ignore warnings about decanting safety, and let the corks fly like so many unguided missiles.

And with an estimated velocity of 60 miles per hour, uncontrolled champagne corks certainly do fly--faster, in fact, than the human eye can blink to protect itself. One moment you're a tipsy lawyer anticipating a (maybe not so) fat bonus check; the next you're wondering how juries will react to your new pirate patch.

In a 2004 study in The British Journal of Ophthalmology, researchers analyzed 12,889 serious eyes injuries caused by carbonated drinks. Though the majority of these improved with time, 26 percent of victims were left legally blind in the effected eye.

"The most common injury we see from champagne corks is simple hyphema, or blood in the eye," explains Dr. Daniel Nadler, a Pittsburgh-based eye surgeon. "It's typical of high-velocity eye injuries, similar to getting hit by a baseball or handball." Usually, hyphema resolves on its own, but it can take a long time before you'll again see the whites of your eye.

Much more serious damage occurs if a cork ruptures the eyeball itself. "Think of your eyeball as a miniature beach ball filled with water," he says. "With enough force, you can put a hole in the side of it." Surgery can sometimes save the eye, but often the damage is just too great.

Even if the eyeball's surface remains intact, the impact of a champagne cork can detach the retina and/or injure the "trabecular meshwork"--the structures within the eye that drain natural fluids. Without such drainage, internal pressures build (secondary glaucoma) till the optic nerve itself is hurt.

Not all such damage shows up right away, says Nadler. So even if your vision seems normal, any significant trauma to your eye-whether or not it's Champagne-cork induced--should be checked to insure that no secondary damage is likely to develop.

Clearly, when it comes to Champagne cork eye injuries, prevention is infinitely preferable to emergency surgery. To avoid the latter fate, take to heart some suggestions from the AAO and leading oenologists alike:

Know your adversary. The potential speed of the projectile is directly related to the pressure inside the bottle, and that depends on a number of factors. On the low end, relatively cheap domestic "sparkling wines" are artificially carbonated. They typically sport up to three or four atmospheres of pressure inside--or 40 to 50 pounds per square inch (p.s.i). Top-end French Champagnes, on the other hand, are naturally carbonated and can reach eight atmospheres of internal pressure, or a little over 100 p.s.i.

Check the bottle. The higher the pressure, the heavier the bottle tends to be. Look, too, for the presence of a punt--or a 1 to 3 inch indentation on the bottom of the bottle. Those inclined to believe corporate conspiracy theories may have always considered the punt a way of reducing a bottle's volume, but it actually serves a structural purpose--keeping a bottle of high-quality bubbly from exploding under high pressure.

Don't let the cork fly. Not only is this dangerous but it's wasteful. Even if the unguided cork missile fails to hit any human targets and/or breakable property, the sudden explosion of fizz can cause up to half the bottle to foam out.

Be more chill. The colder the wine, the more carbonation will remain in solution. A temperature of 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.

Handle with care. Shaking things up, obviously, is not a good idea.

Hold at an angle. Tip your bottle at a 45-degree angle when opening. By doing so, you increase the air-to-wine surface area, reducing both p.s.i. and the chance of foaming.

Wrap it up. Cover the bottle with a towel. In the quite unlikely (though not unheard of) event that the bottle itself shatters, the towel will protect your hands. More importantly, using the towel to grip and cover the cork will nip any unexpected trajectory in the bud.

Twist the bottle, not the cork. Never use a corkscrew or other gadgets on gaseous wines. Simply turn the bottle till you feel the cork start to give, then let it ease slowly into the towel. Keep the bottle tilted at 45 degrees for at least five seconds more to inhibit foaming. Such a delicate approach will minimize the odds of spilling both champagne and blood.

Dress for success. If someone else is doing the opening, and you can't convince him or her of the dangers involved, remember to bring safety glasses to the party.  If you're a guy, a cup's not a bad idea either.

Stay vigilant. Don't let your guard down after the winter holidays end. Nadler says champagne and New Year's are not the only tag team threat to eye safety. The worst eye trauma he's ever treated, in fact, resulted from beer drinking on Labor Day. "These two guys were celebrating at a picnic," he says, "and they got the idea of sword-fighting.  One of them ended up rupturing the other one's eyeball with a corn cob."

Cheers!

Jim Thornton is a National Magazine Award–winning writer whose work has been published in such magazines as Men's Health, National Geographic Adventure, AARP: The Magazine, GQ, Backpacker, and Glamour.

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I had no idea such danger was lurking! Thanks for all the good tips and interesting information.

You say not to use a corkscrew or other gadgets, but does a sword count as a gadget?
Thanks for the entertaining, well written blog post.

Thanks for the advice. I particularly liked the Dress for Success section.

In the current economy who can afford to drink champagne?
Do they still sell Iron City beer?

Thankyou for this very graphic but timely warning.
Poverty has driven me to change my bubbles to the cheaper, less carbonated domestic version. But I will not be complacent! I'll be sure to wear my scuba mask and industrial strength brassiere to the next party I attend.
If I still manage to get injured by a flying cork, can I still sue my host even if I wasn't invited?

Boy oh boy will I think twice the next time I open a bottle of champagne! Thanks for the tip, it's one of those things that should be obvious but I never really thought of it. Cheers to a Happy New Year and Good Eye Health!

Great information, very useful and timely.

Steve

Great article. Who knew that uncorking the bubbly could hold such perils?

Useful & entertaining! This is some scary information. The tips are helpful especially wearing safety glasses at a pary! Loved it.

Good advice. I sense a new source of income for personal injury lawyers ...

This is really going to mess with my family's tradition of champagne-fueled corncob jousting. But thanks for keeping us safe, Mr. Thornton!

Jim,
nice article and fun to read as were the other ones passed along from Rick....a cup? to open a bottle of champagne? hopefully your safety obsession doesn't carry over to tennis or your may look like a soldier of Ceasar! Mark

Alcohol gives me a headache. Maybe it is telling me to just not open these bottles? Anyway, me being from Europe, we are well aware of the dangers, and usually move to an empty room to open the bottles. The injuries are usually not on the person that opens the bottle, but on the "innocent" bystander, catching the deflection off the ceiling... And that is the reason why we disagree with the 45 degree angle. Point it straight at the ceiling, the cork will come straight down.

I will remember this good advice for the office holiday party! Thanks for the great article :-)

To think, all these years I've been teased and ostracized b/c of my fear of champagne. Thank you Mr. Thornton for blowing the top off (so to speak) of this very clear and present danger. Could your next article expose the perils and pitfalls of latex balloons?
Mark

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