Author Dispels, Addresses Common Myths

A new book addresses myths about modern life.

ByABC News via GMA logo
June 5, 2007, 1:31 PM

June 6, 2007 — -- In "Never Shower in a Thunderstorm: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In" author Anahad O'Connor investigates and rebuffs some facts, urban legends and old wives' tales. The New York Times columnist spent more than two years working on the book. Now he opens it up to reveal answers on a variety of subjects, including dieting (yo-yo dieting does not mess up your metabolism) and fiction (sitting too close to the television does not hurt your eyes).Here is an excerpt.

Modern Times
How Safe Is Your Cell?

There is no question about it: technology sets the pace today.

We have BlackBerries to tether us to the office, computers to connect us to the whole wide world, microwaves to zap our food in an instant, cars to keep us moving, cell phones to keep us talking, iPods to keep us humming, and televisions to keep us busy. Everywhere around us, there are gadgets large and small designed to make our lives easier, quicker, and more efficient.

And we're all affected. Take a walk around the streets of Manhattan and you'll be startled to discover that the average person -- with all his digital devices -- seems like a one-man mobile office. To the extent that living like this allows us to accomplish more with our lives, that can be a good thing.

But it is also inherently human to wonder whether all this technological progress poses some perils. And not just in the Hollywood-inspired, science-fiction sense that one day all these machines will rise up and turn against us. Most of us worry about the more subtle cost of living in a world where -- when it comes down to it -- almost everything we're exposed to is unnatural. We spend most of our lives in air-conditioned, artificially lit homes and offices that are noisy, dusty, and far removed from the plains where our ancestors once roamed.

Technology may have some obvious benefits, but it also forces us to put up with some strange side effects. Our food, for example, is genetically altered. Our phones leak radiation. Our televisions strain our eyes. Our airplanes expose us to X-rays. Our microwaves literally irradiate our food. And our indoor plumbing -- well, even that's not the straightforward convenience it seems.

What's more, much of modern technology (except your master bathroom) is so relatively new that, in a way, we are all part of an experiment. We almost always obsess over the risks of things before we have the time to study and fully understand their long-term safety. Cell phones have been around long enough for scientists to know the hazards they pose only in the short term, say, using one every day for four or five years. But is the risk any greater when a person uses one virtually every day for more than a decade, or, as the preteens with their splashy ring tones will eventually find out, over the course of a lifetime?

It's natural to wonder how all our artificial devices are affecting our bodies and our health.

Do you risk electrocution if you shower during a thunderstorm? How about when talking on the phone?

It sounds too bizarre to be true (and makes a great book title). But the answer to this question illustrates that sometimes the medical absurdities we shrug off as myth are not so bogus after all.

When I first heard this warning years ago, I took it as a sign that my parents were losing their marbles. Get out of the tub because there's thunder outside? You have got to be kidding me, I thought. Sure, everyone knows from summers at the swimming pool that water attracts lightning, but your bathroom is a tad more protected. And if ever there was a good time to take a nice long, hot, relaxing shower, it's when I'm stuck inside because the weather is nasty. My dad had to be making it up -- likely just wanting me to speed up my luxuriating and save some money on the water bill. So I was eager to see this myth finally crumble under my reportorial scrutiny, like so many that had come before it.

Instead I found myself eating a heaping plate of crow.

The basis of the claim that people can be electrocuted in their homes during a thunderstorm is that a bolt of lightning that hits a building -- even one that is protected against severe weather -- can travel through plumbing, into metal pipes and wiring, and shock anyone who comes into contact with a faucet or appliance. Metal pipes are not only excellent conductors of electricity, but they also carry tap water laden with impurities that help conduct electrical current.

Lightning may look spectacular and ferocious, but it's inherently lazy. When a bolt of lightning strikes, the current follows the path of least resistance to the ground, meaning it will gladly jump from a good conductor (a metal pipe) to a much better one (you). If the current from a strike is loosed in your water pipes and you happen to be standing in your bathtub twisting the hot water knob, your morning wake-up shower just might pack a little extra punch.

To be sure, in the real world, the odds of this happening are minute. But it happens, and sometimes with amusing results.

In October 2006, a twenty-seven-year-old woman in Croatia was brushing her teeth at home when lightning struck her building and made its way to her faucet. As the woman was rinsing her teeth in the sink, the current entered her mouth and exited -- no lie -- through her rear end.

"I felt it pass through my torso and then I don't remember much at all," the woman, Natasha Timarovic, was quoted as saying in the Times of London and other news outlets.

Putting aside the crude and nearly irresistible jokes, it turns out that the lightning may have failed to ground through the woman's feet because she was wearing cheap rubber-soled shoes. According to her doctors, those rubber shoes -- or, as a scientist might say, "those poor electrical conductors" -- probably saved her life.

Perhaps I should invest in some bathroom flip-flops.

One scientist who can rattle off so many absurd tales like this that he could easily make a living charging fees as a dinner guest, is Ron Holle, a former meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Holle, who spends much of his time tracking lightning injuries, estimated that ten to twenty people are shocked every year in the United States while bathing, using faucets, or handling appliances during thunderstorms. Roughly one of those poor souls is actually killed.

"There are a ton of myths about lightning," he told me, "but this is not one of them."

In a storm, a protected building acts somewhat like a metal cage. Electricity from a lightning strike is conducted around you and eventually dissipates into the ground. That is why those lightning rods stationed on top of your building are so important: they can safely direct the current to the ground.

There is no real risk other than your plumbing unless you happen to be touching something connected to a conducting path and your building does not have a lightning rod or is not properly grounded. Nowadays, in urban settings at least, most buildings and utilities are well grounded. Freak accidents do occur, but they're rare.

Mary Ann Cooper, a doctor who runs the Lightning Injury Research Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said people have been shocked and even killed while chatting on the phone during thunderstorms -- another long-standing fear. In 1985, for example, a high school student in New Jersey was killed when a bolt of lightning caused an electrical surge to flow through his telephone wire, enter his ear, and stop his heart. Investigators later found that the telephone lines in his home were not grounded because the wiring had not been installed properly.

Can watching too much television shorten a kid's attention span?

We live in the age of TV. And we're not just TV lovers, we're TV junkies. The average American child watches about four hours of television a day and each year sees thousands of movies, shows, and television commercials. By the time the average teenager graduates from high school, she's spent half as much time sitting in a classroom as sitting on a couch with her eyes fixed on the tube.

Considering all the quality time kids are spending with their television sets these days, it's worth addressing that age-old question: Are televisions turning children into morons?

There's no doubt that watching television is strongly associated with low intelligence. Plenty of studies show that children who watch a dozen or more hours of television each week have lower reading scores and generally do less well academically than their peers whose parents have no problem flicking the "off" switch. But that doesn't prove that television directly harms the brain, more that it simply deprives a kid of study time.