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Editorial Comment: Education on lightning critical

Every rainy season, lightning strikes kill and injure people, at times damaging their property and livestock.

In most cases, people are caught up at the wrong places and in most cases they could have avoided it, with proper knowledge.

It is important to understand how lightning works and Zimbabweans should start a campaign to educate all and sundry before we lose many lives, livestock and property.

Most of us have thought about being hit by lightning and probably assumed that a lightning flash would come down from the sky, hit you, and that is it. You’re dead.

But lightning injures more people than it kills.


In fact, approximately 90 percent of lightning victims survive, but often with long-lasting damage on the neurological system, says Dr Mary Ann Cooper, a leading expert on lightning injuries.

Lightning that hits someone directly from the sky is called a direct strike and this hardly ever happens.

We all have probably heard that lightning which strikes a building can get into wiring or water pipes to kill someone talking on a phone with a cord or who is taking a shower.

This happens, but such contact strikes are as rare as direct strikes.

Direct and contact strikes each account for only three to five percent of lightning deaths and injuries.

When a lightning strike, containing maybe 20 000 or more amperes of current hits the ground, all this electricity does not just disappear into the earth.

It spreads out in the ground as a potentially deadly current with its voltage decreasing with distance from where it struck.

Such currents are lightning’s biggest danger because they affect large areas in circles extending out from where lightning reaches the ground, such as at the bottom of a tree or a tall object.

Scientifically, high-speed lightning research photos have shown ground-current sparks as far as 20 metres from where lightning hit the ground.

If you happen to be standing in a place affected by a ground current, it can travel up one leg, through your body — possibly stopping your heart or breathing — and down the other leg.


You become a conductor of power, with the lightning moving through your body.

Ground currents are especially dangerous to animals such as cattle, because the current passes through the entire body between the front and rear legs.

The greater the distance between where current enters and leaves a body, the more serious the damage.

The second deadly kind of lightning strike after ground current is called side splash or side flash, which scientists say accounts for 30 to 35 percent of lightning deaths.

This lightning jumps from an object to a person, or even from one person to another.

It is common when the ground is too wet and you are standing on it, like the second half of the rainy season in Zimbabwe around February, when it is too wet.

In this case, huge quantities of energy pass through the body very quickly, resulting in internal burns, organ damage, explosions of flesh and bone, and nervous system damage.

Depending on the flash strength and access to medical services, it may be instant death or it causes permanent injury and impairment.

Being outside when lightning is present is not something to take lightly, ever.

Stay in safe shelter at least 30 minutes after you hear the last sound of thunder.


Stay off corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity.

Always avoid plumbing, including sinks, baths and faucets.

Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off entrances and doorways.

If the weather forecast calls for thunderstorms, postpone your outdoor activities, despite how important and urgent they may seem.

Always remember that when thunder roars, go indoors and relax.

Some scientists have come up with what they call a 30-30 rule.

After you see lightning, start counting to 30. If you hear thunder before you reach 30, go indoors. Suspend activities for at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.

If no shelter is available, crouch low, with as little of your body touching the ground as possible. Lightning causes electric currents along the top of the ground that can be deadly about 20 metres away.

It is always encouraged to stay away from concrete floors or walls.

Lightning can travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.

Although you should move into a non-concrete structure if possible, being indoors does not automatically protect you from lightning.

In fact, about one-third of lightning-strike injuries occur indoors. It, therefore, calls for indoor safety measures too.

While indoors, avoid water during a thunderstorm, lightning can travel through plumbing.

Avoid electronic equipment of all types because lightning can travel through electrical systems and radio and television reception systems.

Avoid corded phones, but cordless or cellular phones are safe to use during a storm.

Lightning strikes may be rare, but they still happen and the risk of serious injury or death is severe.

So take thunderstorms seriously this rainy season.