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Protect yourself from summer storms

Cynthia Ross Cravit
July 17, 2012

Lightning is a deadlier force of nature than tornadoes and hurricanes. Here are some ways to stay safe during a thunderstorm.

While many people think a lightning strike will never happen to them, experts say this could be a dangerous misconception. In fact, lightning kills more people in the developed world than any other natural phenomenon, according to Environment Canada.

A lightning strike can cause cardiac arrest and lead to organ damage and burns, sometimes with long-term effects. These can include memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, stiffness in joints, muscle spasms, and depression.

During the summer months, lightning flashes occur about once every three seconds in Canada. The region most at risk is southern Ontario, with Windsor receiving the highest number of strikes, followed by Toronto and Hamilton. In western Canada, lightning is the culprit for about half of all forest fires.

When lightning strikes

Lightning usually strikes higher ground and prominent objects, especially those that conduct electricity (which basically means anything made of metal). The general rule is that if you hear thunder, you’re close enough to the storm to be at risk — and should seek shelter.

One common mistake people make is to try to protect themselves from the heavy rain by huddling beneath a tree — but if lightning strikes the tree, electricity will run down the trunk, through the roots and into the ground, causing a strong shock. Instead, seek shelter in a house, large building or motor vehicle, and keep the windows and doors shut.

Once inside, experts say to avoid using hard-wired electrical equipment including corded telephones and games such as PlayStation or X-box. (Cell phones, while unsafe outdoors, are okay to use indoors.) Don’t take a bath or shower during a thunderstorm, and avoid concrete floors since they are typically reinforced with metal and carry an electrical charge. To make sure the storm has passed, wait at least 30 minutes after hearing the last strike before going out again.

Other tips:

– If you take shelter in a motor vehicle, be sure you’re parked away from power lines. Close the doors, roll up the windows and avoid touching metal surfaces. Note: While cars with a hard top are generally safe, soft-tops are not.

– If you’re attending an outdoor activity, look for shelter in a large building or an enclosed vehicle. Open shelters generally will not provide adequate protection.

– Don’t use a cell phone or MP3 player outdoors during a thunderstorm. You should also avoid holding a golf club, umbrella or fishing rod.

– Riding a bicycle, motorcycle or ATV? Get off — contrary to what many believe, the rubber tires will not protect you.

–If a thunderstorm strikes while you’re boating, head directly for shore. If caught on the water, crouch low in the boat.

– If you’re in a flat, open field, bend down and put your hands on your knees. Don’t lie down, as it’s safer to maintain minimum contact with the ground.

–Avoid contact with metal. Stay at least 30 metres away from metal fences and take off shoes that have metal cleats.

– If you’re in the middle of a recreational activity, don’t try to finish. Postpone that inning or round of golf until the storm has completely passed.

–Stay away from water, including lakes and puddles.

If someone is struck by lightning, seek medical care immediately. With proper treatment, including CPR if necessary, most people survive a lightning strike. By helping someone who has been struck by lightning, you will not be putting yourself at risk since the charge will not affect you.

Sources: Canada Safety Council; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Lars Lentz

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