Are iPods Wearers Human Lightening Rods?

You’ve probably heard the medical reports about people damaging their hearing because of listening to iPods with the volume cranked to 11. But is that the worst health risk associated with iPods? The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) began reporting in the July 12, 2007 issue about cases of iPod wearers being struck by lightening. (See the original NEJM article: “Thunderstorms and iPods — Not a good iDea”.)

The article described the injuries sustained by an iPod-wearing jogger who was struck by lightening during a thunderstorm. Those injuries included ruptured eardrum membranes and burns leading from the ears down the chest and matching where the man’s earbud wires had been. The article hypothesized that even if wearing an iPod didn’t increase the risk of being struck by lightening, the iPod still potentially directed the lightening to the person’s ears and head.

Similar claims previously have been made in the medical literature about cell phone use during thunderstorms, and in fact those reports have gone the extra step of hypothesizing that the cell phone use actually increased the likelihood of the user being struck by lightening. Making matters worse in the case against iPods, the single case reported in the NEJM apparently ended up being reported in the medical literature as multiple differing cases. (See the original NEJM article “Thunderstorms and iPods — Two Reports of the Same Case”.)

The Good News
The lightening danger posed by iPods, however, is far from established. The ongoing dialog that started following the original iPod lightening report has at least achieved some consensus about what medical professionals know and what they don’t yet know about the interaction of lightening and portable electronics devices such as iPods. (See the original NEJM article “More on Thunderstorms and iPods”.) The authors of the original articles and resulting correspondence agree:

  • In reality, the evidence suggests that using mobile telephones or MP3 players during thunderstorms does not increase the likelihood of the user being struck by lightening.
  • Ear damage (and resultant hearing loss) are common in people who have been struck by lightening, regardless of portable electronics usage. While mobile phones or MP3 players may have an impact on that specific injury, the injury itself is not a direct result of using those electronic devices.
  • It is even possible in the originally reported case that the iPod earbud wires may have carried the lightening’s electricity away from the jogger’s heart, thus actually saving the man’s life.

Ultimately, I agree completely with the author’s final shared conclusion: If common sense were as widespread as iPods, this entire debate perhaps would be unnecessary. In other words, if it’s lightening out, use your common sense, stop jogging and go indoors!

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