Okay, so CSI had three plots, and the C-plot (aka the smallest, most minor) was about a guy who got electrocuted in his massage chair. It was a hot day, 120+, and the guy’s A/C was out. And so we enter the plot.
First I saw a dead guy in a chair, in his shorts, in front of a big screen TV with the phone off the hook and on the ground. Assumption one was that he’d been jerking off and died. Then the CSI (Warrick!) found a weird bruise on the guy’s finger on his right hand. The phone was on that same side, so it was probably safe to assume the phone was in that hand. Aha! Electrocution! The coroner confirmed my guess, adding that it was a shallow, mild, shock that screwed up the heart rhythm and caused a heart attack. Okay, so the phone took a charge and shocked him? Is that even possible?
So I did some legwork. My favorite urban myth site is Snopes, and I searched them for lightning. I also looked for electrocution and phones. That’s a lot of searching. Short answer, there’s nothing on it for electrocution through a phone line. Fact is that phone lines carry a charge. That’s how they ring, people. The phone company’s computers send a ringing signal in AC waveform (about 20 HZ for the US). The voltage at your end depends upon loop length and number of ringers attached to the line; it could be between 40 and 150 Volts. The ringing cadence – the timing of ringing to pause – varies from phone company to company. Understanding Telephones can help you some more.
Now that that’s out of the way, we know that phones can carry a charge and why. So does anyone die from that? Oddly enough, UrbanLegends.com answers that. While their page is poorly formatted, the answer seems to be yes, and it happens more often than you thing. But UrbanLegends, unlike Snopes, doesn’t cite sources well enough for me to take as gospel. Still, it seems logical that if there was a spike in power, a phone could knock you with up to 150 Volts, and that’s enough to fuck you over.
Most electrocution injuries occur at voltages above 50 Volts AC or 100 Volts DC however sometimes the voltage can be much lower. The damage is not actually the Voltage but the amps. An amp is an abbreviated name for an Ampere, which is the unit RATE of electrical current flowing in a conductor. Volt is the unit of force, amp is rate of current. It can take as few as 30 milliamps (a thousandth of an amp) to make an adult have a heart attack. Freaky. Can a phone carry that much current? An on the hook (i.e. hung up) phone carries up to 5 microamps (you really need to learn the metric system). When you use your phone, you’ve got a current going to the phone. This holds true for old ringer phones and cordless. But yes, you can be electrocuted by your phone.
Tangent: A poster on TWoP claims it’s ‘rare’, while Australian research says it’s ‘more common than you think.’ I can find records of upwards of 60 people a year in Ausie getting shocked, so let’s say ‘it can happen, it’s not super common, and the use of cordless phones may cut down on it.’ but I have no proof of that. Moving on.
Fine, you can get shocked by your phone. How did the phone get extra charged enough to do that? It takes a surge on the line. The CSIs said ‘Heat Lightning’ and I replied ‘Boooooogus!’ (tm Car Talk). I’m guilty of calling it heat lightning myself, but it’s not. There’s no such thing as heat causing lightning. I live in Chicago, and I’ve seen lightning with no rain when it’s a gazillion degrees at night, but that ain’t it.
Heat lightning, as I was told as a youth, is caused by hot air expanding until it sparks on hot nights. It’s a sudden glow in the sky that can be silent or not. Many real scientists and the ilk will claim it exists, but they are all wrong. There are really two phenomena that cause heat lightning.
It can be a normal thunderstorm, miles and miles away, so far that you can’t hear the thunder, but near enough that you can see the light. And before you bitch that you can’t see light that far, I’d like you to think about how far away the sun is. Thank you. It’s a horizon thing. So long as it’s not too far away, the curvature of the Earth won’t be enough to hide it from sight.
The other form of ‘heat lightning’ is ‘sheet lightning.’ Sheet lightning is actually a standard lightning bolt whose light is reflected off cumulonimbus cloud towers or is diffused as it passes through the atmosphere and thus loses its distinctive bolt pattern. In other words, the light of the moon refracting off the fog in the swamp made it cloudy and hazy enough that you couldn’t see the bolt.
The CSIs never brought this up, sadly, and used the National Weather Service’s website to map lightning strikes. Don’t bother. It doesn’t really exist. Bastards. There is a map for earthquake location, but since there are so many more lightning strikes (I’ve seen over 20 in a night), I doubt anyone’s anal enough to map it, even if they could.
In the end, the CSI determined that the bag of Blue Ice the dead guy used to cool off leaked and trickled down to the surge suppressor, which sent a jolt up to the guy and zapped him. The burn/bruise on the finger was the electrical exit wound.
I do wish they’d stop with the bunk about urban myths. But it does give me something to write about!