June 22, 2006 -- Is it safe to use cell phones outside during a thunderstorm? A letter published in BMJ says "maybe not."
The letter comes from Ram Dhillon, FRCS, and two other experts in ear, nose, and throat health (otorhinolaryngology, or otolaryngology, as it is called in the U.S.). They work at Northwick Park Hospital in Middlesex, England.
Dhillon's team tells of a London teen struck by lightning while talking on her cell phone in a park during a storm. The girl survived, and it's not clear what role, if any, her cell phone played in her injuries.
"This rare phenomenon is a public health issue, and education is necessary to highlight the risk of using mobile phones outdoors during stormy weather," write Dhillon and colleagues.
Teen Struck by Lightning While on Cell Phone
The 15-year-old girl cited in the letter was seen being struck by lightning while using her mobile phone in a large London park during stormy weather, write Dhillon and colleagues.
The girl's heart stopped beating when the lightning struck. "She was successfully resuscitated, but one year later she was a wheelchair user with complex physical, cognitive, and emotional problems," the doctors write.
The girl also suffered hearing loss from a torn left eardrum. She had been holding her phone on her left ear during the storm, the letter states.
While the doctors have no way of knowing if the cell phone worsened the girl's injuries, that might be possible, they write.
Worse Injury Risk?
"If someone is struck by lightning the high resistance of human skin results in lightning being conducted over the skin without entering the body; this is known as flashover," write Dhillon and colleagues.
"Conductive materials in direct contact with the skin, such as liquids or metallic objects, disrupt the flashover and result in internal injury, with greater morbidity and mortality," they add. "Morbidity" means illness or injury; "mortality" means death.
Dhillon and colleagues say they know of no similar cases in medical literature, though they found three fatal cases reported in Asian newspapers from 1999-2004. The doctors didn't confirm those newspaper reports through medical sources.
When asked about this modern-day lightning risk, National Weather Service spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen tells WebMD the girl's "main problem was that she was standing out there" during the storm.
The safest thing to do in a storm is to seek cover, ideally in a large, enclosed building, stresses the National Weather Service, which is part of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Simply being outside during a storm -- regardless of cell phone use -- made her "an easy target," Feltgen says.
Feltgen says he'll leave the flashover science to the doctors, but the amount of metal in a cell phone is "far too small to attract lightning."
WebMD also contacted CTIA -- The Wireless Association, an association for wireless communications companies. Its public affairs director, Joe Farren, didn't have an immediate response. His group will look into it, Farren tells WebMD.