Summer is reaching its height in the northern hemisphere, and with it has come another round of speculation whether cell phones—or Apple’s ubiquitous iPod media players—attract lightning. In 2005, a Canadian jogger was struck by lightning while listening to his iPod; the bolt threw him two and a half meters, ruptured his eardrums, and left him with a broken jaw and a Y-shaped burn on his neck and chest where electricity leapt up the earphone wires. Last year a Colorado teen suffered similar (though less severe) injuries when lightning struck nearby while he was mowing the lawn—and listening to Metallica on his iPod.
So: do iPods attract lightning?
In a word, no. The strong consensus in the medical and scientific communities is that personal electronic devices like cell phones and iPods do not increase the odds of being struck by lightning. However, the proliferation of personal electronics is changing the nature of injuries individuals may suffer as a result of a strike.
On average, the Earth sees about 100 lightning strikes a second, and even though it’s a rare thing, around the world people are struck by lightning on a fairly regular basis. A lightning strike can be fatal, but lightning often flashes over a person’s skin—which isn’t very conductive—and discharges into the ground. Sometimes individuals suffer only a mild burn and disorientation—many can’t recall being struck.
However, mobile phones, iPods, personal media players, headsets, GPS devices, and similar items put significant quantities of metal and other conductive material in contact with or next to users’ bodies. Lightning bolts can carry up to 300 million volts at ranges from (say) 10,000 to 200,000 amps, which is more than enough power to overwhelm, melt, and ignite batteries, cases, internal components, and headphone wires. One result is a growing number of cases where users suffer contact burns and other injuries from lightning strikes and other freak electrical accidents.
The effects aren’t limited to electronic devices: keys, tools, rivets, glasses, zippers, buttons, snaps, and other metal items—even the underwires in bras—can cause similar injuries. A number of lightning-related injuries have also been caused by discharges carried through corded telephones. However, personal electronics often put conductive items near their faces, eyes, and ears, increasing the likelihood of vision damage, hearing loss, or facial disfigurement.
So, go ahead: use your electronic gizmos! But also exhibit common sense when lightning is in the area: get indoors. If you must be outside, avoid elevated areas, tall nearby objects like trees, and bodies of water.
[And yes, we warned you last year, too.]
[Thumbnail image by Darren Brown, public domain.]
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