Zapped! Lightning Strike Sparks iPod Safety Debate
A Canadian jogger happened to be carrying an iPod at the wrong place at the wrong time. Lightning struck his body during a thunderstorm, and the current ran along the path of the earphones and into his head, causing injuries to his jaw and ear eardrums. The patient's physicians say the combination of sweat and the metal earphones directed the current to his head.
A report in this week's New England Journal of Medicine describes how a man running in a thunderstorm was burnt along the path of the earphones of his iPod and had his eardrums and jaw injured when he was struck by lightning.
The emergency physicians reporting the incident -- Eric J. Heffernan, Peter L. Munk and Luck J. Louis of Vancouver General Hospital -- opine that "the combination of sweat and metal earphones directed the current to, and through, the patient's head."
Does this mean that having an iPod, mobile phone or any other personal electronic device increases the carrier's chances of being struck by lightning? Not at all, according to lightning strike survivor and founder of non-profit educational organization Struckbylightning.org Michael Utley. "Nothing attracts lightning," Utley told TechNewsWorld, "except height and isolation."
Getting struck by lightning is a factor of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, regardless of what a person is wearing or carrying, said Utley. The demographic groups currently most likely to be struck by lightning are children walking to and from school in Florida (where thunderstorms are quite common) and high school athletes in Texas (where coaches are loath to call games until the storm is quite close), according to Utley's organization.
What happens to the electric charge of lightning after it enters a person's body can be affected by clothing and items on the person's body, Utley noted. Anything made of metal can be heated by the electricity and then cause burns on the victim's body. By anything, he means even such obscure metal items as shoe eyelets and pocket change.
The fact that a personal music player contains metal places it in this group of potentially burning objects. However, nothing about an iPod, or any other electronic device, attracts lightning, he said.
Lightning, the 200-Ton Elephant
Another myth of personal electronics and lightning is that someone using an iPod or mobile phone will be more severely injured than someone struck by lightning who is not carrying such a device.
"When I was struck," Utley explained, "I had a metal putter in my hand. That putter probably directed some of the charge away from me."
In the case of the jogger, the iPod channeled the current through its earphone wires to his ears, according to the physicians and article authors.
"But the energy was already in his body," notes Utley. The question is just where the energy flows as it seeks the path of least resistance.
"Lightning is like a 200-ton elephant," Utley stressed, "it goes wherever it wants."
'When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors'
The best way to protect against being hurt by lightning is to go inside at the first sound of thunder, Utley noted. In fact, his organization -- whose board of directors includes a number of national weather and lightning injury experts -- conducts a wide range of public education activities around the federal slogan for lightning safety: "When thunder roars, go indoors."
This advice is different from what many believe, which is that a person must be standing in the rain with a storm directly overhead to be struck. Not so, said Utley. Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from a storm. Thus, instead of worrying about what they are carrying or wearing, he stressed, joggers, golfers, kids on sports teams, and anyone else outside should worry about getting inside as soon as they hear thunder.