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August 18, 2006

BehindTheMedspeak: Don't bathe or shower during a thunderstorm — NOT an old wive's tale


Anahad O'Connor, in his superb "Really" feature, appearing weekly in the Tuesday New York Times Science section, is teaching me stuff they never told me in school — medical or otherwise.

This past Tuesday's column explained why mom's warning to get out of the tub during a thunderstorm was right on the money.

Here's the Times piece.

    The Claim: Never Bathe or Shower in a Thunderstorm

    The Facts: It has the ring of an urban legend and seems too bizarre to be true. But the claim that taking a shower during a lightning storm can electrocute you is no old wives’ tale, experts say.

    The basis of the claim is that a bolt of lightning that hits a house or building — even one that is protected against severe weather — can travel through plumbing, into metal pipes, and shock anyone who comes into contact with a faucet or appliance.

    Metal pipes are not only excellent conductors of electricity, but they also carry tap water laden with impurities that help conduct electrical current.

    In the real world, the odds of being harmed this way are extremely minute. But it is not unheard of. Ron Holle, a former meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who tracks lightning injuries, estimates that 10 to 20 people in the United States are shocked annually while bathing, using faucets or handling appliances during storms. “There are a ton of myths about lightning,” he said, “but this is not one of them.”

    In a storm, a protected building acts somewhat like a metal cage. Electricity from a lightning strike is conducted around you and eventually dissipates into the ground. There is no real risk unless you touch something connected to plumbing, electrical wiring or another conducting path.

    Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, who runs the Lightning Injury Research Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said people had been shocked and even killed washing dishes, doing laundry and sitting in bathtubs in storms. A database of these incidents is online at struckbylightning.org.

    The Bottom Line: Lightning can travel through plumbing and shock people.


Tell you what: I'm gonna have to start paying O'Connor if I keep using his stuff.

Memo to file: send him a check.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah, lightning in a bottle.

No, that's not right... wait a minute....

OK, I got it now.

I must say I've always scoffed at people who've told me not to bathe or shower during a thunderstorm.

Never again.

Writer Gretel Ehrlich's lyrical, moving account of being struck by lightning and nearly killed near her Wyoming ranch in 1991, "A Match to the Heart,"


is a superb memoir, matching in power and depth William Styron's classic "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness," his finely wrought description of his nightmare descent into near-suicidal depression.

And speaking of dear, departed mom, I'm reminded of Mark Twain's classic observation about his father, to wit:

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned."

August 18, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Yes, but now so many house have pvc pipes, or that gray, bendy plastic, instead of copper or lead ones. I wonder if that reduces the risk.

Posted by: Aileen | Aug 18, 2006 7:27:08 PM

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