Claim: It is dangerous to take baths or go swimming during thunderstorms, and people have been injured or killed while doing so.
Example:[Collected via e-mail, April 2006]
After a line of severe thunderstorms rolled through our town this evening, my wife and I were discussing some of the oft-given warnings about lightning, and specifically the one about not taking a shower when lightning is occurring nearby. I expressed my skepticism about that advice.
Has anyone ever been hit by lightning while showering? I read your article about people getting zapped while on the phone, which I'd heard about before. But in the shower? I don't know why I find this particularly unlikely — water is, after all, reputed to be a fine conductor of electricity — but I do.
Is it true it is dangerous to take a bath or shower in your home during a thunderstorm?
Origins: Although this devastating force of nature (which kills an average of 51 people a year) usually claims its victims from those who are caught outside during thunderstorms, lightning has injured (and even killed) those who were indoors. People talking on landline telephones have
been hit, as have those who were standing in front of windows. Yet the electrical discharge mayhem doesn't end there: folks doing the dishes and taking baths and showers have also been harmed by bolts from the sky.
Lightning strikes into the ground near homes have sent devastating jolts up pipes and into sinks and bathtubs. Metal pipes used in household plumbing provide effective conduits for the massive electrical charges released by even a single bolt.
Such injuries are relatively uncommon in the greater scheme of things because one has to be doing the dishes or bathing or showering in the right (or wrong) place at the precise moment when a bolt hits. However, people have occasionally been injured in this fashion:
In May 2008, 15-year-old Falicity Wishkeno of Topeka, Kansas, was hit by lightning while taking a shower. Said Wishkeno, "Right when I got in the shower, I heard the thunder hit. I saw this big, white light. I jumped out of the bathtub and collapsed. I had trouble breathing, and I couldn't feel my legs at all. I felt all this pain in my legs and my whole body."
In November 2007, a bolt struck a teenager who was washing her hair at her home in Blandford, England. Said Abbie Jackson of the event, "It hit my wrist and basically lit up my arm. The showerhead flew out of my hand."
In October 2006, a woman in Croatia was struck by lightning while brushing her teeth just as lightning struck a pipe outside the her home. Said Natasha Timarovic of her experience, "I had just put my mouth under the tap to rinse away the toothpaste when the lightning must have struck the building. I don't remember much after that, but I was later told that the lightning had traveled down the water pipe and struck me on the mouth, passing through my body. It was incredibly painful, I felt it pass through my torso and then I don't remember much at all."
In June 2001, Josephine Martine of Deal, England, was blown out of her bath tub by a lightning bolt. The mother of three, who had been soaking in her bath tub during a thunderstorm, was catapulted naked through the air by the force of the bolt, landing on the other side of her bathroom. Said Martine, "I felt a huge kick in my hand and knew straight away it was electricity. In a split second I saw the water rippling. The kick of the electric shock was so powerful I was sort of thrown out of the bath. It was scary, but it happened very quickly."
In August 1988, as Eleanor Loux of Exeter, Rhode Island, brushed her teeth at her bathroom sink, she saw a bolt of lightning leap from her toilet. The resulting ball of fire then bounced off walls and the ceiling in her bathroom until it dissipated. Surprisingly, Loux was not injured. Her bathroom, however, was another story — the ceiling was cracked and the bathtub had charred rings in it. A utility pole outside her home had been hit by lightning, which sent the resulting charge through neighborhood power lines and metal water pipes.
John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service, examined demographic information for 238 outdoor deaths caused by lightning over several years and found that swimming was one of the activities associated with such deaths. However, that correlation likely has more to do with swimmers not having as much time to reach a place of safety when storms hit than with swimming being an inherently dangerous activity in such conditions:
Of the 152 deaths associated with leisure activities, fishing was followed by camping (15 deaths), boating (14 deaths), soccer (12 deaths) and golf (8 deaths). The remaining 77 people were struck by lightning while participating in a number of other leisure activities like enjoying the beach, swimming, walking and running, riding recreational vehicles, and picnicking or relaxing in their yard. Between 2006 and 2012, 82 percent of people killed by lightning were male.
"When people think of lightning deaths, they usually think of golf," Jensenius said. "While every outdoor activity is dangerous when a thunderstorm is in the area, outdoor activities other than golf lead to more lightning deaths."
Jensenius said the large number of fishing, camping and boating lightning deaths may occur because these activities require extra time to get to a safe place. "People often wait far too long to head to safety when a storm is approaching, and that puts them in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation," he said.
As to how to remain safe indoors during a thunderstorm, experts advise:
A safe shelter is a building with electricity and/or plumbing or a metal-topped vehicle with windows closed. Picnic shelters, dugouts, small buildings without plumbing or electricity are not safe. There are three main ways lightning enters structures: a direct strike, through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure, and through the ground. Once in a structure, lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/television reception systems. Lightning can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.
Stay off corded phones. You can use cellular or cordless phones.
Don't touch electrical equipment such as computers, TVs, or cords. You can remote controls safety.
Avoid plumbing. Do not wash your hands, take a shower or wash dishes.
Stay away from windows and doors that might have small leaks around the sides to let in lightning, and stay off porches.
Do not lie on concrete floors or lean againt concrete walls.
Protect your pets: Dog houses are not safe shelters. Dogs that are chained to trees or on metal runners are particularly vulnerable to lightning strikes.
Protect your property: Lightning generates electric surges that can damage electronic equipment some distance from the actual strike. Typical surge protectors will not protect equipment from a lightning strike.