Lightning strikes

It happens more often than you think. Here’s how to avoid injuries from lightning strikes.

You’ve probably heard the saying “Lightning never strikes twice”, but if you happen to be the target, once is quite enough. Consider the BC jogger who recently suffered neck and chest burns, a broken jaw and burst eardrums after lightning struck his iPod. Or the 7 people recently hospitalized from two separate lightning strikes in Ottawa.

While most people may think a lightning strike will never happen to them, experts say this could be a dangerous misconception. Lightning has been the second largest storm killer in the United States for the last 40 years, exceeded only by floods, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Over the last 30 years, the U.S. averaged 62 reported lightning fatalities each year, but experts believe this number is under reported. Of people who are struck by lightning, only about 10 per cent are killed, leaving 90 per cent with various disabilities including hearing loss, eye damage or muscular problems. Surprisingly, the burns received from lightning strikes are not usually severe because the strike is so fast (about 100,000 miles per hour or 160,934 km per hour) that flesh does not have time to burn.

In Canada, lightning kills about seven people and seriously injures 60 to 70 people a year, according to Environment Canada.

iPods and Cell phones + Thunderstorms = bad idea
When a person is struck by lightning, the current is usually conducted over the skin. But sweat combined with any type of metal in contact with the skin can make the damage worse.

This is what health officials say happened to the BC man who had been wearing earphones from his iPod while jogging. He had been sweating at the time, and the earphones transmitted the electrical current into his head. According to a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine: “Although the use of a device such as an iPod may not increase the chances of being struck by lightning, in this case, the combination of sweat and metal earphones directed the current to, and through, the patient’s head.”

The jogger suffered 50 per cent permanent hearing loss, according to media reports.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a recorded case of such an incident involving a person wearing headphones and we think the public should be warned,” Dr. Eric Heffernan, an attending physician at Vancouver General Hospital told the media.

British doctors believe that metallic cell phones can pose similar risks. Last summer a London teen was struck by lightning while using her mobile phone in a park. While the 15-year-old was resuscitated, one year later she was in a wheelchair with “complex physical, cognitive and emotional problems”, including muscle contractures and weakness. Other injuries included a permanently perforated eardrum and hearing loss on the side she was holding the cell phone.

More tips to avoid injury
Keep an eye out for developing thunderstorms. While thunderstorms are more likely to develop during the spring or summer, they can occur year round.