The Truth & Myths of Lightning – Get off the Phone? Out of the Shower?

June 10, 2010

By Terry Smiljanich:

With a hot summer in store for much of America, thunderstorm season is quickly approaching. Is it just an urban myth that you shouldn’t use a telephone, even a cell phone, during a thunderstorm, because a lightning strike could kill you? The Consumer Warning Network looks at the issue.

Lightning Strikes Can Kill

Lightning carries a mighty wallop, with a peak power of more than a billion kilowatts transmitted in one stroke, lasting 30 microseconds. Anything that conducts electricity can provide a path for this electrical surge, including anything plugged in at your home – corded telephones, plumbing, refrigerators, televisions, metal doors and window frames. By the time the surge reaches indoors, however, much of the power jolt has been reduced. This is why, getting a mild electrical shock touching such items during a storm is a frequent occurrence, whereas deaths or serious injuries are uncommon.

Surge protectors in your home can kick in when lightning attempts to travel through the power grid, but even the best can’t always provide complete protection from a direct and powerful hit.

Metal pipes in your home can carry a current as well. The “myth” about the dangers of showering or bathing during a storm is not really a myth. The plumbing can transmit a shock. There have been no reported lightning-related deaths resulting from bathing or showering at home in the past few years, but it remains a good idea to fore-go such activities during a storm.

Lightning doesn’t have to hit you directly in order to deliver a shock. More often, a nearby strike (on a tree, for example) can travel through the ground and reach you. Its power will be diminished, but still can be strong enough to give you a good jolt.

Lightning Statistics

Florida is the “lightning capital of America,” with more thunderstorms and lightning strikes than any other state. Annually, Florida leads the nation in deaths caused by lightning, with 15% of the total deaths occurring within the state. In terms of per capita deaths caused by lightning strikes, however, Florida ranks fifth. Leading the pack is New Mexico, followed by Wyoming, Arkansas, Colorado, and then Florida. The safest states are Alaska, Hawaii and California.

Lightning deaths are rare events. On the total list of the most common causes of accidental deaths in the U.S., lightning deaths aren’t even in the top 100 causes. You’re more likely to die from a slip in your bath tub, choking on a steak, or being bitten by a wasp.

Still, lightning is nothing to fool around with. Of the 34 fatalities caused by lightning strikes in 2009, 11 happened during an outdoor sporting activity such as golfing, fishing, jogging, and baseball. Six people were killed while doing yard work. The lesson is obvious: if a lightning storm is nearby, get indoors!

Get Off The Telephone!

But are you also safe indoors? Not always. In 2006, an unfortunate 15 year old girl was standing by the window in her room when a lightning strike killed her. That same year, a 64 year old man in Mississippi was killed when lightning struck his telephone line while he was on the phone. Yes, it can happen.

In the past 25 years, there have been at least five reports of serious injuries to persons using a telephone during a lightning strike. In 1985, for example, 17 year old Jason Findley of Piscataway, New Jersey, was electrocuted by a lightning strike while he was on the telephone in his home. In 1988, 22 year old Laura McDowell, eight months pregnant at the time, was killed instantly when lightning traveled through her telephone line while she was on the phone.

The danger may be small, but absent an emergency, a thunderstorm is not a good time to chat with your best friend on the telephone.

Cell Phones Too?

So what about cell phones? Can’t the electricity travel through the radio waves associated with the devices and deliver a shock to the person using them? No. Radio waves don’t conduct electricity. As long as the cell phone is not connected to an electrical outlet, no lightning can reach the user through the wiring in the house. And there’s no evidence that cell phones somehow “attract” lightning.

Interestingly, though, there is another danger posed by using cell phones during a storm, especially while outside and holding a metallic cell phone to your ear. Skin is a poor conductor of electricity. Most of the electricity from a strike is conducted over the skin rather than through the body. Add some metal in contact with that skin, however, and the impact is multiplied as the electricity has an easier entry into the body.

Even iPod’s Can be Dangerous in a Storm

Ask Jason Bunch of Castle Rock, Colorado. In 2006 the teenager was mowing his lawn listening to his iPod. He was struck by a lightning bolt from a nearby thunderstorm (you don’t have to be directly under a thundercloud to be struck). Aside from the obvious mistake of doing yard work with a storm nearby, he was also unfortunate that his iPod was plugged into his ears. When he woke up, blood was coming from his ears. His eardrums had busted, and he had deep burn lines where the headphone wires had draped down his body. “I’m just extremely blessed to be alive,” Jason said from his hospital room.

Similarly, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a jogger in Vancouver, listening to his iPod, when a lightning strike on a nearby tree suddenly threw him 8 feet through the air. He survived, but had ruptured eardrums and two linear burns up his chest corresponding to the positions of his earphones.

The British Medical Journal reported on four incidents of similar injuries caused by using a cell phone outdoors during a storm – in London, Malaysia, South Korea and China.

There’s nothing special about cell phones and iPods when it comes to such lightning danger. You could just as easily be injured holding a toaster to your ear while either jogging or mowing the lawn with a storm nearby. The simple solution to protecting yourself from such dangers is to get indoors if a thunderstorm approaches. If you are outdoors, unplug your iPod from your ears and put the cell phone away. Lightning deaths and injuries are rare, but there’s no reason to tempt the fates.