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Lightning And iPods A Dangerous Combo, Doctors Warn

When the storm clouds loom, it might be a good idea to put away your iPod. A Vancouver jogger learned that lesson the hard way two years ago when a lightning strike zapped him via the mp3 player. The lightning transferred to him after striking a nearby tree, leaving burn marks along the path of the device’s white earbuds, singeing his chest and rupturing his eardrums, and left burn marks down his left leg before the electricity blew up his sneaker as it left his body. He also fractured his jaw in the incident.

“Using things like this, a mobile phone or an iPod, there isn’t actually an increased risk (of incurring a lightning injury),” said radiologist Dr. Eric Heffernan, who treated the unidentified jogger in Vancouver. “But we just suggest that if you are unlucky enough to be hit by lightning while listening to anything with earphones you may be more likely to do yourself some damage.”

The now-39-year-old man still feels the effects of the incident. He has 50 per cent hearing loss in both ears and wears two hearing aids. Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, who studies lightning’s effects on the body at the University of Illinois, explained that the iPod didn’t attract the lightning, but it provided a conductor for the electrical current.

“Once electricity contacts the iPod, then the metal will conduct the electricity and can cause secondary burns as this gentleman had to his chest underneath where the iPod was and up where the wires went up into his ears and possibly even cause enough muscle contraction that either caused the jaw fracture or perhaps he fell forward onto his jaw,” she said.

And that’s not the only case where an iPod made a lightning strike that much worse. Colorado teen Jason Bunch was listening to his while mowing the lawn last summer when lightning struck a tree and subsequently knocked him unconscious. The 18-year-old’s eardrums were ruptured and he suffered burns in the incident.

Cooper recommended putting away the iPod or cell phone if the weather looks ominous, because they could keep you from noticing the warning sign for lightning: thunder.

Meanwhile, five boys in the Ottawa area didn’t have iPods on when they were struck by lightning, but they were carrying golf clubs. The teens weren’t seriously hurt when the lightning struck a tree near the practice green where they were standing. One boy was knocked out by the blast but had regained consciousness by the time emergency crews arrived.

Some tips for staying safe in a thunderstorm:

Don’t underestimate the power of lightning. When you hear thunder, seek shelter indoors or in an enclosed metal vehicle. (Convertibles aren’t safe, even if the top is up.)

In a building, don’t use the phone, steer clear of appliances and stay away from doors, windows and water.

If you take refuge in a car, make sure you aren’t parked near a tree or power lines that could come down on the vehicle during the storm. Avoid touching anything metal and keep the windows fully closed.

If you cannot make it to shelter indoors, avoid water, high ground and wide open spaces where you are the high ground. Canopies and picnic shelters are also unsafe, and huddling under a tree is a bad idea.

Standing near metal objects such as electrical wires, fences and machinery is unsafe.

If you are outside when lightning is striking, crouch down with your feet close together.

Cover your ears to minimize hearing damage. Do not wear headphones attached to a cellphone, iPod or other musical device.

Environment Canada’s lightning safety tips

U.S. National Weather Service’s lightning safety home page