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Bolts of Death:
Lightning Is a Hidden Killer

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article originally appeared on page 15 in May 24-25, 2003 issue,
reprinted on page 14 in June 12-13, 2004 issue,
reprinted on page 19 in June 11-12, 2005 issue,
reprinted on page 10 in August 22-23, 2009 issue of The Mississauga News
under the feature: Health, Wellness & Beauty, Medicine Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

As a Coroner, one of the saddest and potentially preventable death investigations that I encounter involves lightning deaths. Foolish disregard exists on our sports fields about this naturally occurring killer. There are at least 2000 thunderstorms and at least 100 bolts per second occurring on our planet at any given moment. Statistically, Ontario victims tend to be males involved in recreational activity who often ignore severe weather watches. Some 500 people will be struck by lightning in North America this year, and 30% will be fatal. Victims of minor strikes often don't realize or report it. Just ask my daughter Lesia and her friends who tried to finish a baseball game before "the rain came" and found their teeth buzzing, hair standing on end and tingling all over. The amusement was terminated by a quick flash and loud thunder. Everyone was fine, but it took days to piece together what happened. The greatest danger in our community comes from killer bolts. Lightning can kill before the rain starts! Examples abound of people being struck while watching distant storms believing it to be safe.

Just ask any pilot where the danger lies, and he or she will point ahead of the storm. As a quickly moving storm front approaches, the air ahead of and behind it gets a friction supercharge. This can result in "KILLER BOLTS" being launched ahead and also behind the storm front. These bolts have been known to travel as far as 12 km. They kill without rain and sometimes during a "sunny game". In cases with supervising adults present, be they coaches or golf starters, all claimed ignorance as a defense. Environment Canada issues regular weather warnings. No one has more respect for lightning than Texans and those living in the tornado belt. They use a simple rule: If you see lightning and hear thunder within TWENTY seconds, you are inside the five mile strike zone and need to find shelter fast. Rain has little to do with it. I am shocked that sports activities are called off only when the rain starts. There is a pressure in our fast-paced society to not postpone or cancel things. There is no safety in numbers, only ignorance. Employ the 20 second rule; take your children and your friends off the fields and leave. Cars tend not to get hit due to the rubber tires and can provide refuge. Wait 30 minutes after the last thunder sound to resume play or venture outdoors.

Lightning is a discharge of static electricity from clouds. The temperature in a bolt reaches 25,000 degrees Celsius. Bolts are attracted to objects or groups of objects offering little resistance. They may enter the body through a small metal entrance way such as a steel rivet in a hat, chain, ring, or zipper. The bolt will exit the body close to the ground. This force is tremendous and results in footwear being blown off. On its journey through the body it will sear, mangle and vaporize tissue. A victim may appear normal on the exterior, but have severe internal injuries. One survival strategy is to discard all metal and stay curled on the ground if you feel the tingling of an imminent strike, in the hopes that it will pass over your body surface and into the ground. The electrical charge is capable of stopping the heart. It is safe to immediately approach a victim and begin resuscitation. Surprisingly, many people are capable of surviving the strike with proper aid.

The enjoyment of sport must be tampered with a regard for safety. Please ensure that the adults supervising on our sports fields are aware of this hazard and how to recognize the danger zone. I consider it bordering on the criminal to openly endorse policies that require children to demonstrate a presence on a sports field during inclement weather, be in rain or heat to qualify for cancellation. Ignoring common sense will result in guilt, sorrow and regret that last a painful lifetime. What does one tell a parent whose child needlessly perished because the responsible adult "was just following rules"?? One death or injury from lightning during a sporting event is one too many. The rule of thumb is simple. If you can see lightning and hear thunder, it can kill you. Sufficient time must be allowed to reach safety.

Ontario recorded at least 5 new lightning victims in the last week alone. Lightning is the most common unexpected adverse weather threat in our region. The number of people that remain uninformed of this fact and play lightning roulette with their friends and children is astounding. Severe thunderstorm watches are seen as curious news items and continue to be ignored, particularly by recreational sport organizations. The rule is simple, the ability to see a bolt of lightning signals danger and you should move indoors immediately. There is no such thing as waiting for it to get "closer".

Q & A:

Dr. Kujtan has responded to two questions received from a reader:

Q: Where does lightning enter and exit the body?

A: There are no set entry points. Lightning will enter at the point of least resistance and exit in a similar fashion. That entry point could be moist surface, i.e. wet hands or hair ... metal, such as that found in a cap.

Q: Do sneakers help during a thunderstorm?

A: The charge is far too great for sneakers to have any benefit.

From Lightning Myths: Fact or Fiction: "Cars are a safe place to be during a lightning storm. Fact: If caught outdoors, try to find a car if it's not possible to get into an enclosed building. If the car has a metal top and sides and if the windows and doors are kept shut, it is safe as long as a person does not touch any metal parts. The tires do not provide insulation. It's the metal frame that allows the lightning to travel along the surface of the vehicle and to the ground. A convertible does not offer protection."

Minivan Struck by Lightning - Video from YouTube, 2:08 min.

Top Gear - Richard Hammond struck by lightning in car - BBC - Video from YouTube, 5:18 min.

Related resources:

Lightning Photos from Guy-Sports.com.

Personal Lightning Safety Tips from National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI).

When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors! from National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Lightning: Its Frightening, Fascinating Power from Boston Channel - Chronicle.

Lightning Segment One Video - 6:19 min.

Lightning Segment Two Video - 5:40 min.

Lightning Segment Three Video - 6:28 min.

Lightning Kills, Play It Safe from Farmers' Almanac.

Lightning KILLS! from NOAA's National Weather Service.

Lightning: Fact, Myths and Misnomers from National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, NOAA.

by Chris Cappella, USATODAY.com.

Light on Lightning! Danger! from The Why Files.

How Does Nature Make Lightning? from The Why Files.

What are the medical effects of being struck by lightning? from The Why Files.

A Lightning Safety Mandate for the Game of Golf by Richard Kithil, President & CEO, National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI): "A good rule for everyone is: 'If you can see it (lightning), flee it; if you can hear it (thunder), clear it.'"

Lightning Safety Quiz from Museum of Science, Boston.

Saving Lives, Protecting Property from Lightning Protection Institute (LPI).

Lightning Safety from WeatherEye.

Thunderstorms and Lightning from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Lightning Statistics from Struck by Lightning.org. "There were 43 lightning fatalities for 2007 (in U.S.), 38 men and 5 women, all were outside when they were struck."

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