Monday, July 16, 2007

iPods and 'Disrupted Flashover'

Constantly wearing a portable music player, such as an iPod, may be the next stage in evolution for some members of our species. But Mother Nature apparently does not approve.

A letter to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) from doctors at Vancouver General Hospital in Canada relates the case of a 37-year-old man, brought to the emergency room of the hospital after being hit by lightning while jogging and listening to his iPod. The lightning first hit a nearby tree before reaching him, and witnesses said he was thrown about eight feet.

iPods and 'Disrupted Flashover'

The incident, which the Journal called an "uncommon" hazard, may seem laughable, but his injuries are not. He received second-degree burns on his chest and left leg, and there were two "linear burns" along his chest, neck and sides of his face, tracing the lines of his earphones. Both of his "tympanic membranes" -- eardrums -- were ruptured, small bones in his middle ears were dislocated, his jaw was broken, and he had a "severe conducive hearing deficit."

The incident occurred two summers ago, but the man, a part-time musician, still has less than half of his normal hearing. Dr. Eric Heffernan, one of the authors of the letter to the NEJM, told the Washington Post that the man bought a new iPod later, but now leaves it home when he goes jogging.

The Journal noted that, while people can be struck by lightning directly, more often, the lightning jumps from a nearby tree or other object to the person in a "side flash." Normally, high resistance of the skin will allow the lightning to be conducted over the outside of the body, which is known as "flashover."

Flashover is still dangerous, and can stop your heart. But sweat or metallic objects on the skin can short-circuit the flashover, producing what Dr. Heffernan called "disrupted flashover," so that the lightning is conducted internally through the body. Metal jewelry or coins in a pocket can also cause disrupted flashover.

Dangers Span Electronics

The doctors' letter notes that the iPod may not actually increase the chances of being hit by lightning, but can make things worse if it happens. The iPod can direct current to and through a victim's head -- especially if the device is worn while sweating during outdoor exercise.

Dr. Heffernan told the CanWest News Service that there was a similar case in Colorado last summer. The teen-aged victim was mowing the lawn and listening to his iPod when struck. He still has hearing damage in both ears, despite surgery on his ruptured eardrums, as well as burn marks on his hip, and lines on the side of his face.

But iPods are not the only pieces of personal technology to magnify hazards in extreme weather conditions. Any electronic device touching the body can conduct current. There have been cases of injuries involving cell phones, laptop computers, and beepers during or before a thunderstorm.

Though many people gauge lightning danger by the weather, thunderstorms aren't the only time you need to be wary. Lightning can strike even when it isn't raining.

"When thunder roars," lightning safety experts intone, "go indoors." If the personal tech device continues to log accident victims, the phrase may need to be altered: "If you need to be outdoors when thunder roars, leave the iPod at the stores."

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