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Ditch That Cell Phone in a Thunderstorm

The devices may prove deadly in a lightning strike, some doctors suggest

FRIDAY, June 23, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Citing the case of a 15-year-old girl struck by lightning while using her cell phone in a London park last year, some doctors are warning against the outdoor use of the devices during stormy weather.

The girl survived, but is confined to a wheelchair, has lost some hearing in the ear she was holding the phone to, and suffers a variety of physical, cognitive and emotional problems. She has no memory of the incident because she also suffered cardiac arrest at the time.

"This rare phenomenon is a public health issue, and education is necessary to highlight the risk of using mobile phones outdoors during stormy weather to prevent future fatal consequences from lightning-strike injuries related to mobile phones," three British doctors write in the June 24 issue of the British Medical Journal.

But other experts point to a number of variables that could have played a role in the accident.

"I am not aware of any research on a cell phone being a particular attractor of lightning," said John Drengenberg, manager of consumer affairs at Underwriters Laboratories Inc., in Northbrook, Ill. "There's nothing that would indicate they would attract lightning other than the fact that this girl with her cell phone and antenna would be something that would be the only thing that lightning would go to in that area."

Lightning is the second-leading weather-related source of fatalities in the United States, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute. National Weather Service data notes that 400 people are struck and approximately 67 are killed each year by lightning -- more deaths than caused by hurricanes or tornadoes. Only floods are more deadly.

Almost three-quarters of people who survive a lightning strike suffer lifelong, severe complications and disabilities. Lightning also causes about $5 billion of economic loss each year in the United States.

According to the authors of the letter, the high resistance of human skin means that if lightning strikes, it is conducted over the skin without entering the body, resulting in a low death-rate phenomenon known as "flashover." But conductive materials such as liquids or metallic objects -- i.e. cell phones -- disrupt the flashover and result in internal injury with greater death rates, according to the three authors from Northwick Park Hospital in Middlesex, England.

The letter's authors could not find any similar cases reported in the medical literature, although they did find three cases reported in newspapers in China, Korea and Malaysia. In all these cases, the person died after being struck by lightning while using a mobile phone outside during a storm, the authors said.

The Australian Lightning Protection Standard recommends that metallic objects, including cordless or mobile phones, not be used or even carried outdoors during a thunderstorm.

People can take other common-sense precautions during a lightning storm, Drengenberg said:

  • Get inside during a thunderstorm, and don't use a landline telephone. "If lightning strikes in the area, it will come through the telephone lines and could go through you," he warned. Also, avoid electrical appliances such as washing machines or dishwashers.
  • Don't take a shower or wash dishes because lightning can travel through water pipes.
  • Don't stand near an open window on a hot day when there's a lightning storm. As the heat leaves the house through the window, it becomes a conduit for lightning.
  • If you find yourself stuck outside, avoid wide-open spaces and don't stand under a tree. Thanks to the saline composition of your blood, you are a better conductor of electricity than the tree.

More information

The National Lightning Safety Institute has more on lightning safety.

SOURCES: John Drengenberg, manager, consumer affairs, Underwriters Laboratories Inc., Northbrook, Ill.; June 24, 2006, British Medical Journal
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