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Listening to MP3s in a storm could blow your mind

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20120806

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Listening to MP3s in a storm could blow your mind




Listening to MP3s in a storm could blow your mind

A man in Vancouver, Canada, has discovered the hard way that listening to earphones in a thunderstorm can be a very bad idea. He was jogging while listening to an iPod, when he was struck by lightning. The earphones conducted the electricity through his head, bursting his eardrums and fracturing his jaw.

Most people who are struck by lightning are not hit directly, but get a "side flash" when the electric discharge jumps from the object that was hit.

In 2006, the 37-year-old Vancouver man was out jogging when he received just such a side flash from a tree that had been struck. He was thrown over 2 metres, as a result of the electricity making his muscles contract.

This is normally the main cause of any injuries sustained from such strikes, says Eric Heffernan of Vancouver General Hospital, who treated the man.

However, people are surprisingly resistant to the electricity itself, because the skin has a high resistance. Normally the current passes over our bodies in a "flashover" - unless a conductor, such as excess sweat or metal, directs the flow of electricity into our bodies.

Violent contraction

That is what happened when the man's earphones "directed the current to and through his head", Heffernan and his colleagues found. The violent contraction of his jaw muscles dislocated and fractured his jaw.

Two long, thin burn marks extended up his chest and the sides of his face, and there were ""substantial" burns inside his ears. The sudden expansion of gases in his ears due to the hot earphones ruptured his eardrums, and he was deafened.

A cartilage graft from elsewhere in his body was used to patch up the ear-drums, but the patient still has 50% hearing loss and must use hearing aids, Heffernan told New Scientist. The fractures and burns have healed. However, the iPod was destroyed irreparably.

"We couldn't find any reports of similar events [involving headphones] in the medical literature," he says, although there have been press reports of a Colorado man being similarly hit. A woman was also severely injured in 2006 after being struck while talking on a cellphone.

The patient was listening to music he had planned to play in church the following Sunday, but he can't remember exactly what, or much else about the incident, says Heffernan. In a similar way, people given electric shocks to the brain as a therapy for some mental disorders also suffer some memory loss.

"This could have happened with any player, not specifically an iPod," Heffernan notes. Importantly, he says, the earphones simply directed the lightning - they did not attract it. "There is no increased risk of being struck by lightning when using an iPod - even if you're listening to heavy metal."

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