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Keven Moore: Old wives tale — is it really dangerous to take shower, talk on phone when there’s lightning?

Growing up, I was told like a zillion times that it wasn’t safe to take a shower, do dishes or even talk on the telephone if there was a thunderstorm occurring outside our home.

I thought that it was just my parent’s way of trying to get me off the phone, but as a typical boy I often times welcomed such safety advice as an excuse to get out of household chores and having to take a bath.

During my teen years, I can distinctly remember defying that wisdom, believing it to be an old wives tale because after all I had never heard of anybody dying in the shower or talking on the phone for that matter.

Lightning strikes the United States about 25 million times a year.

Lightning kills an average of 47 people in the United States each year, and hundreds more are severely injured. You have a 1 in 1,222,000 chance of being struck by lightning this year, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). However those odds of being struck in your lifetime (Est. 80 years) increases to 1 in 15,300.

I can say that because it happened to me one summer day about 15 years ago when I had returned home from a family camping trip and was unhooking our old 1972 Airstream camper from the back of our family SUV as a storm was approaching. Thinking that I had plenty of time to unhitch the camper, out of nowhere lightning struck somewhere nearby and I received a jolt of electricity as I was raising the electric hitch. It obviously wasn’t fatal but it sure did cause me to go running inside whimpering like a puppy after being shocked the first time from an electric fence.

As most of you’d expect, the overwhelming majority of those lightning strikes are while conducting activities outside, but could you be electrocuted inside the comforters of your own home? Or is nothing more than an old wives tale?

The facts are that it is possible to be struck while inside the comforts of your own home.

The NWS says it is indeed possible to be struck while showering because lightning can travel through your pipes electrifying your bathroom.

According to the show, MythBusters on the Discovery channel, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage took that weather alert to task and constructed a makeshift house, complete with grounded plumbing. Then, they doused it with simulated lightning in an electricity testing facility to find out whether the voltage really could leap from the sky to the shower.

Since the MythBusters were shy about showering on camera, they hired a stand-in: a ballistics gel dummy that had roughly the same electrical conductivity as the human body. To screen for a fatal lightning strike, the dummy wore a heart monitor. The 700,000 volts of fake lightning indeed arced onto the water pipes and jumped to the shower, causing a fire.

Although the heart monitor failed to measure the amount of current swimming through the stunt dummy, the visual evidence was clear enough to rule the myth plausible. Just as the National Weather Service warns, it’s safe to shower only once thunderstorms have passed you by.

In days of landline telephones, cast iron tubs and metal supply and drain lines, it was even that much truer back during my day.

According to an older 2006 New York Times article, 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.

For instance in July 2017, a 17-year-old working at a McDonalds in Alabama had a workers compensation claim when she was electrocuted as she was washing dishes when a storm started to roll through.

According to one article at www.independent.co.uk, the death rate of showering or doing the dishes is 0.013 deaths per 100 million people per thunderstorm which is rather low.

According to my limited internet research, I did find somewhere that one person claimed to work with a woman whose father died when he was electrocuted while taking a shower during a thunderstorm, but found no official news report of such an occurrence. However, I did find several examples of people that have been electrocuted while showering or doing the dishes.

AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski notes it can also depend on how your house is grounded. “When a house is built, it should be built so that when your electricity comes in, it’s grounded to your house. If your house is grounded to separate rods that are basically stuck down into the ground, then that’s a bit safer because nothing is attached to the plumbing. Some homes, years ago, had electrical systems that were grounded to the plumbing system.

He said one way to change where your electrical system is grounded is to have an electrical contractor come in and put steel rods in the ground, a few feet away from the house, and attach the electrical system to those rods. In order to determine if your electrical system is grounded to your plumbing, it’s best to contact an electrician.

So in conclusion, as it turns out the “Old Wives” were correct.

If you hear thunder, lightning is within striking distance, so that should be your signal to step away from the plumbing and electricity. To be safe you should avoid sinks, showers, bathtubs, dishwashers, washer machines and anything that is plugged into the wall — like a lamp or a corded phone.

Then wait at least 30 minutes after the storm passes to resume use.

Be Safe My Friends!

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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