Are Cell Phones Safe in a Lightning Storm?

By John Machay

When used during thunderstorms, are cell phones harmless communication devices ... or lightning rods of death?
i Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images

At any given moment, there are approximately 2,000 thunderstorms occurring in the world, resulting in about 100 lightning strikes every second. Of those, somewhere between 25 million and 30 million strike in the U.S. every year, killing 50 to 75 people and injuring up to 750. With so many people getting zapped, it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to tempt fate by strolling around with what could amount to a miniature lighting rod pressed up against your head. But just how dangerous are cell phones in thunderstorms?

The Less-Than Shocking Truth

Someone who’s chatting on a cell phone is just as likely to be struck by lightning as someone who isn’t. Contrary to the belief that the metal components of cell phones and portable media players make users of such devices targets in thunderstorms, lightning is most attracted to the tallest objects in a given area that provide the quickest and easiest path to the ground. The reason trees are so often struck is because they’re usually the tallest potential conductors in a given area. Other often-struck targets are mountains and hilltops, which, like tress, don’t have a scrap of metal in them. So the general rules of lightning safety, which say your odds of being struck increase if you’re the tallest object in the area, apply to everyone – regardless of whether they’re talking on cell phones.

Not Completely Danger-Free

While cell phones and other electronic devices might not attract lightning, there’s evidence that suggests they could make already-electrifying situations even worse. In 2007, the New England Journal of Medicine ran a story about a 37-year-old jogger who was thrown 8 feet when lightning struck a nearby tree. His injuries -- two thin, parallel paths of burns – began somewhere around the abdomen, separated at his sternum to travel up both sides of his neck and came to an explosive halt in each ear. His eardrums had ruptured. His jawbone was broken in four places and dislocated on both sides. Further investigation found the burns to be consistent with the wires connecting his earbuds to his MP3 player. Doctors believe the shock of the lightning strike, which is normally dissipated over the surface of a victim’s skin and down to the ground, was attracted by the MP3 player’s metal parts, which channeled the bulk of its jolt. So, while a cell phone won’t increase your chances of getting struck by lightning, it could increase the severity of your injuries if you are.

Unsafe Phones

The idea that cell phones attract lightning came about some years ago as an urban legend, circulated on the Internet. Fears associated with the real possibility of being struck through a traditional home phone receiver have likely played a part in keeping the myth alive. As opposed to cell phones, which provide no direct grounding paths, the typical land line setup offers lightning exactly what it needs to complete a strike – tall telephone poles strung with conductive wires that venture right into the ground. A strong enough jolt could result in electrical discharge traveling through a line splitter, into individual homes and to one or more handsets. There are dozens of documented cases in which people have been killed in this manner.

Play It Safe

In spite of the facts, to say it’s safe to use a cell phone in a thunderstorm would be misleading – because it’s not safe to be in a thunderstorm. If you’re caught in one, make sure you’re not on high ground and don’t stand in an open space – and don’t take shelter under an object that’s likely to be struck, either. Stay away from obvious conductors, such as water, metal sheds, railings, fences and bleachers. The interiors of vehicles are generally safe because, if struck, the jolt is generally dissipated across the metallic body and down to the ground – so don’t touch or lean on the door when driving in a thunderstorm. The safest place, of course, is in your home. Given the potential danger associated with using a landline phone when lightning is present, that’s when talking on your cell phone could actually be safer.