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The enlightening truth about lightning strikes

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Part one of two.

With summer, thunderstorms and lightning strikes become an increasing concern. But should you be worried? After all, your chances of being struck by lightning are remote. (If you calculate the number of lightning deaths across the total population, your chances of dying after being struck by lightning are about one in 2.8 million.)

But this figure is misleading. Some people are at much higher risk than others. Benjamin Franklin got away with flying his kite in a thunderstorm. Two who tried to replicate Franklin's experiment were killed.

The amount of time a person spends outdoors is a key factor when it comes to lightning strikes. Construction workers, baseball players, golfers and campers are at a greater risk than someone who works indoors.

What a person does while outside the safety of a home or office building is a second factor. Those working near tall trees or steel beams experience a higher risk.

Where you live and work is also factor. Certain areas of the country experience more lightning strikes than others. People in Florida, where thunderstorms are plentiful and people spend large amounts of time outdoors (often on the water or the golf course), have the highest risk.

Understanding the circumstances that result in lightning injuries and deaths, as well as the magnitude of the risk, can provide a clearer picture of the threat to your safety and health. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports:

27 percent of lightning strikes occur in open fields and recreation areas.

3 percent involve heavy equipment and machinery.

84 percent of victims were male.

Months of most incidents were June (21 percent), July (30 percent) and August (22 percent)

Most incidents occurred between 2 and 6 p.m.

Top five states for lightning deaths include Florida, Michigan, Texas, New York, Tennessee.

There are many myths surrounding lightning strikes:

Myth: Lightning only strikes very tall objects.

Truth: Lightning strikes the tallest objects in a particular area. If there is a small tree in the middle of a field with larger trees surrounding the field, the small tree is just as likely to get struck by lightning as the tall ones. It is also possible for lightning to strike the ground. If you are out in the open and are surrounded by tall objects, do not assume you are safe from lightning.

Myth: Rubber shoes or boots insulate and protect against lightning.

Truth: A half-inch of rubber will not stop lightning. People who have been struck by lightning have often had shoes and other clothes blown off or apart by the powerful shock wave produced by the lightning.

Myth: Lightning does not strike the same place twice.

Truth: Lightning is random and generally unpredictable. It can strike up to 50 miles from a cloud (sometimes the cloud can't be seen because it's over the horizon). The Empire State Building in New York City can be struck as many as 15 times by a single passing thunderstorm. Roy Sullivan, a retired park ranger from Virginia, is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for surviving seven lightning strikes.

Myth: People who are struck by lightning carry an electrical charge and should not be touched.

Truth: Lightning victims do not carry a lightning charge and can be safely touched.

Myth: If a group of people is caught in an open field without shelter, they should stay near each other.

Truth: When you mass as group you are, in effect, increasing the size of the target and the likelihood of a lightning strike hitting more people. It is recommended that people do not cluster together but keep 15 to 20 feet apart.

Myth: Lightning strikes are always fatal.

Truth: Lightning strikes kill only 20 percent to 30 percent of those who are struck. Generally, only those who sustain immediate cardiac arrest die. Those who are stunned or lose consciousness without cardiac arrest are likely to live.

Alton Thygerson, professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University, is the National Safety Council's first aid and CPR author and technical consultant. For more information, the National Safety council First Aid Handbook by Thygerson is available in local bookstores.