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HUMANS AND SPARKS:
The Cause, Stopping the Pain, and "Electric People"

(c)1997 William J. Beaty

"Static electric" sparks can be irritating and their cause sometimes seems mysterious. Most people have encountered painful car-door sparks, as well as those wintertime sparks from doorknobs and large metal objects. What causes these? What can be done to stop them?

As children, most of us learn the trick of scuffing our shoes across the carpet in order to charge our bodies. Then we go to search for victims to "zap" with our electric fingers. Sparks from rug-scuffing are familiar. If you scuff your feet on the carpet, you expect to be zapped by the next doorknob you touch. But why do our bodies sometimes become charged from simply walking around?

ELECTRIFYING CAUSES

Actually, no friction or rug-scuffing is required in order to electrically charge your body. The need for friction is a widespread misconception. While it's true that the friction can increase the charge-separation process, friction isn't the cause. Whenever two different insulating surfaces touch together, opposite charges within the two surfaces become separated. Simply walking across certain rugs or plastic flooring will cause your shoe soles to touch the dissimilar material of the rug. This is enough to separate the negatives from the positives and create imbalanced electric charges on the bottoms of your shoes.

"Static" electricity ( more correctly called "net electric charge" ) appears whenever the normal quantities of positive and negative electricity in a substance are not perfectly equal. Remember that everything is made of atoms, and atoms in turn are made of positive and negative electric charges. In other words, your body is just a collection of positive and negative electrical particles. Normally the positives cancel out the negatives, and everything behaves electrically "neutral." No mysterious sparking. But if you ever end up with more negative than positive, or with more positive than negative, then you have a charge-imbalance on your body. You will get zapped the next time you touch a large metal object.

Exactly how can this imbalance occur? Whenever we walk, the soles of our shoes steal some negative charge from the floor. We leave behind electrified positive footprints, and our bodies aquire an overall imbalance of negatives. (Or sometimes vice versa with the negative and positive, since polarity is determined by the type of shoe soles and the type of rug.) After many footsteps, our bodies attain a high level of electric charge and a high voltage. Body-voltage can easily rise to several thousand volts, and the next time you touch someone else... ZAP!, the imbalanced charge gets shared between you and the other person. The spark is painful because it's extremely hot. It drills into your skin like a white-hot needle, creating a microscopic burned area.

SOME CURES

The simplest cure: before touching a doorknob, a car door, etc., first touch it with a metal car key. The fiercely hot spark will blast the tip of the metal key rather than blasting your sensitive fingertip, and it will painlessly discharge your body's charge. (Grip your keys firmly so no spark appears between the keys and your skin.) Once you've been discharged, you can safely grab the doorknob. However, if you walk around some more, or if you sit upon a plastic car seat, you'll again need to use the keys discharge yourself.

To prevent sparks entirely, we must somehow stop the charge separation process. This can be done by:

  • Changing your shoe soles to another type (try leather)
  • Raising the humidity in the room
  • Spraying carpets, floors, and chairs with an antistatic coating
  • Installing a balanced-polarity ionizer fan (try the $50 static eliminator # MI9957, from C&H Sales)
  • Wearing metal-coated shoe soles (try alum. foil, but it's slippery)
  • Wearing a grounded wire connected to a wrist strap

As with the car keys, the problem can also be prevented by discharging your excess body-charge in some way that doesn't cause pain. This can be done by:

  • Grabbing the metal car door as you climb out of the car.
  • Holding your car keys, a coin, or a metal pen, touch it to grounded metal objects.
  • Knocking your knuckles against doorknobs (fewer nerve endings, less pain.)
  • Wearing a metal thimble, touch it to grounded objects.
  • Installing conductive carpeting, then wearing an ankle-strap w/shoe plate.

The sparking problem is usually found in low-humidity locations, such as in air-conditioned office buildings. High humidity prevents the charge-separation which causes sparks. Raising the humidity in the environment stops the sparking. High humidity makes the surfaces of shoes and rugs slightly conductive, so the separated charges can instantly flow back together. Usually all of the "static electricity" will vanish when the RH is above 60%. If you live in a single house or apartment, use a room humidifier. Or just boil away a few quarts of water on your kitchen stove.

Or, if we spray the floor with antistatic liquid, this can do the same thing as raising the humidity. Antistatic liquids aren't magical, they simply make surfaces slightly conductive so the charge-separation cannot occur. Make your own antistatic spray by mixing a teaspoon of liquid fabric-softener into a quart of water.

Electronics manufacturers use balanced-polarity air ionizers to eliminate sparks. These make the air itself into a conductor, but also they're expensive ($300 is typical.) NOTE: C&H IS SELLING ONE OF THESE STATIC ELIMINATORS FOR $50, # MI9957 (3/2004.) ANOTHER NOTE: there's a wearable ionizer advertized by NPA, but no price given.

Manufacturers also sell conductive shoe-straps and ankle cuffs which connect your body electrically to the floor. These are meant to be used with special conductive carpets, and they won't work well (or work at all) if the floor surface is made of wood, plastic, cloth, or other good insulator.

Shoe soles create the charge imbalance, so you can reduce the sparks by avoiding particular types of shoe soles. For example, rubber soles usually cause significant charge separation, while thin leather soles cause far less. Damp salty leather is best. Or wear sandals made from old tire treads (the black rubber is conductive.) Or wear no shoes at all, only wear thin socks or go barefoot.

You might consider coating your shoe soles with heavy adhesive aluminum foil. The foil halts the sparking because contact with metals can only generate a tiny amount of imbalanced charge. Unfortunately the foil makes your shoes dangerously slippery, and it leaves black scuff marks on plastic floors.

Simple solution: whenever sparking is possible, carry a metal object such as a pen or a set of keys. Hold them firmly and use them to touch any large metal objects. If the spark is blasting the end of your car keys, then it isn't burning a hole in your finger. And right after the spark has occurred, you can grab that metal without a problem.

For car-door sparks: if you touch the metal shell of the car as you climb from your seat, there will be no high-voltage buildup and no painful spark. This is good news for the passengers in your car who might not be carrying any keys or coins.

Another solution: always knock your knuckles against doorknobs before grabbing the knob. This won't stop the spark, but the spark is less painful when it bores into your knuckle rather than into your delicate fingertips. If you whack your knuckles hard, you barely feel the spark at all. After all, you're EXPECTING the small pain of your knuckle impact, and you are controlling the impact, so the pain of the spark isn't uncontrolled and unexpected. For some reason, unexpected sparks hurt far more than the ones you produce intentionally.

If you REALLY hate sparks, you might consider wearing a metal sewing thimble upon one finger at all times. Touch the thimble to the doorknob (or to other metal objects) and you'll feel no huge "zap." The spark will still occur, but the pain is gone. Note that the metal of the thimble MUST touch your skin, otherwise you won't stop the spark. If you want to experiment with thimbles in the ends of gloves or mittens, put the thimbles INSIDE the fingers of the gloves.

If you keep getting zapped at work, or if you keep crashing your computer, consider wearing a wrist strap with a wire connected to an electrical "ground." These are inexpensive on ebay.com, typically less than $10, just search for keyword "electrostatic" and you'll find some. While you wear a grounded wrist-strap, your body cannot charge up at all.

CAR DOORS

The cause of car-door sparking is well known: contact-electrification between insulating surfaces, followed by separation of those surfaces. But what does this mean? Well, *YOU* are one surface, and THE CAR SEAT is the other. When you sit on a plastic car seat in dry weather, the contact between your clothes and the seat's surface causes the electrical charges within atoms of the material to transfer between the surfaces. This is our old friend "frictional" or "contact" charging. One surface ends up with more negative charges than positive, and has a negative charge-imbalance. The other surface has fewer negatives than positives, so it has a positive imbalance. This is nearly same thing as rubbing a balloon upon your hair: both surfaces become electrically charged. But rather than rubbing just your hair, instead you're rubbing your entire back, but, and legs upon the car seat surface.

However, nothing happens as long as you remain seated. Just keep yourself in one place and you won't get zapped.. As long as the surfaces remain near each other, the positives and negatives cancel out, and no overall "electricity" appears and no sparks are possible. But when you open the car door and step outside, you take just one polarity of charge along with you, while the car seat has the opposite polarity. At the same time, the charged-up car seat causes the whole car to become charged (by a process called "Faraday's Icepail Effect.") As you step out of the car, the voltage between your body and the car becomes huge, up to 10,000 or even 20,000 volts. Your shoes are probably insulating, so the charge has no opportunity to leak into the earth. You reach out to close the car door and ZAP!, the opposite polarities rejoin by leaping through the air while giving you a tiny, deep burn on your fingertip!

How to prevent this? One possibility: change the surface materials. Identify and avoid the specific clothing which makes the problem worse. These materials are usually wool sweaters and pants, certain manmade fabrics, plastic raincoats, etc. Or, replace your cheap plastic car seatcovers with cloth (stains easily!) or with leather (expensive dead animals.) Another method: mix up some anti-static solution and spray your car seats. This solution remains slightly damp for weeks, which halts the contact-charging process. The formula: a teaspoon of fabric softener mixed in one quart of water. This tends to work well at first, but after days it wears off and needs a re-coating. Another sillier method: always drive barefooted, so the charge will leak away when you step outside the car. Not good in winter! You could cover your car seats with a conductor such as aluminum foil, which screws up the contact-charging effect. Have a tailor make some custom clothing out of black conductive carbon cloth? Or you could eliminate the problem by eliminating your clothes. Skin is fairly conductive, so it doesn't create charge-separation when held against plastic. Driving while nude might cure the sparking problem (unless you are a very hairy person!)

A less frivilous method: the car-keys trick I mentioned earlier. Develop the habit of holding your car keys as you leave the car, then grip the keys firmly and touch the metal car door with the tip of the key. The spark will still jump, but it will not be painful, since it blasts a little hole in the tip of the key instead of in your finger. Or simply grasp the car door as you climb out, and this will drain off the charge-imbalance faster than it can build up on your body.

DANGER: GASOLINE FIRES. What happens when you climb out of your car at the gas station? Usually you'll zap yourself on the car door, or on the gas pump handle, or on the metal door that covers your gas cap, and usually nothing bad happens. However, suppose your passengers climb out of the car just as you're unscrewing the cap, or just as you jam the gas pump nozzle into your tank? The whole car becomes momentarily charged. ZAP! Or, suppose you turn on the gas pump and then climb back into your car. When you climb out again, you body is highly charged from the car seat. The very first thing you do is to reach into the cloud of gasoline vapors to grab the metal handle of the gas pump. ZAP! FOOSH! This obviously is a very rare event. However, it does occur sometimes, especially in the winter. See the PEI site on static hazards.

A research paper: The Control of Body Voltage Getting Out of a Car, from JCI

Safety issues:
List of gasoline fires caused by static sparks.
Sparks and gasoline.


MYSTERIES: Electric People

The source of some human-body sparking is a mystery. There are reports of rare people, "Electric Humans," who develop high voltage on their bodies and suffer the continuous problem of "static" sparks. Their sparking occurs regardless of footwear, clothing, humidity, or even motion! Electric people are forever getting zapped when they touch others, or when they touch large metal objects. For the rest of us, "static electric" sparks can only occur after we walk across certain carpets when humidity is low, or when we wiggle around while sitting upon certain chairs. And for the rest of us, the problem vanishes when the humidity is high, or when we go barefoot or avoid wool or nylon sweaters/pants, avoid plastic seats, etc. But the bodies of "Electric Humans" instead seem to become electrified all the time, all by themselves, without involving the friction or the contact/separation of differing surfaces.

R.A. Ford mentions two cases in chapter 13 of his book HOMEMADE LIGHTNING (1991 Tab Books). In one case from 1837 a woman could repeatedly jump sparks 1-1/2" long to a metal object while she stood still on a thick carpet, or she could continuously create 1/16" sparks much faster (once per second.) Another case took place in 1920, when prison inmates in upstate New York suffering from Botulin food poisoning were found to be "electrified." They were able to attract paper, create sparks, etc., even when partially submerged in a bathtub. (Obviously the bathtub must not have been attached to grounded pipes, otherwise the excess charge would have vanished instantly.)

In modern times an Electric Human would have additional problems besides irritating sparks. Computers, stereo equipment, digital watches, etc., are easily damaged by high voltage and spark discharges. All sorts of electronic appliances would not survive very long under the electrostatic barrage. An electric human would be advized to buy mechanical watches, and to avoid buying any appliance which contains a microprocessor.

Unfortunately, scientific skepticism is currently at an all time high, so if a person with this sparking problem was to seek help, they would probably be ridiculed and their sanity questioned! Scientists don't believe in "electric people." Reputable scientists "know" that Electric Humans are mere superstition and cannot exist. Therefor anyone claiming to have this problem is irrational, perhaps deranged! At least the internet is there, giving opportunity for 'charged humans' to tell their stories (for example, at: REPORT YOUR UNUSUAL PHENOMENA)

An organization in the UK:
 

Mr. Hilary Evans
Co-ordinator of Street Lamp Interferance Data Exchange (SLIDE)
59 Tranquil Vale, London SE3 OBS
England

What could cause the "Electric Human" problem? First, shoe sole material and clothing material needs to be eliminated as a possible cause. Maybe you aren't an "electric human" at all. Maybe you simply have electric shoes! If sparks are ALWAYS a problem, regardless of wearing various conductive clothing (cotton) or various shoe soles (leather, metal foil, etc.), then perhaps the problem isn't from "frictional" charging, and it's something mysterious.

In order to create a static electric imbalance on our bodies other than through "contact" or "frictional" methods, we would have to be sending out ELECTRICALLY CHARGED AIR (and so our bodies would take on an opposite charge.) Perhaps the skin does this somehow. Or maybe the membranes of our lungs can somehow emit air which is electrically non-neutral. If a person were to constantly be breathing out negative ions (charged air molecules), then, unless their body was electrically grounded to the earth, they would rapidly accumulate a positive charge-imbalance on their body, an imbalance which is equal and opposite to the charged air being breathed out.

NOTE! In private communications M. Foster mentioned that if you blast a hair dryer through a PVC pipe after first wetting the inner surface of the pipe, the pipe becomes highly electrified. The cause is unknown, but it might involve the bursting of microbubbles (which are known to launch negative water droplets into the air.) This might indicate a mechanism whereby human bodies can becomes mysteriously electrified WITHOUT scuffing any shoe soles on carpet. If the wetted PVC pipe is replaced by human lungs, and if the hair dryer is replaced by the act of breathing, we have an analogy for the infamous "electric human."

Are you an unexplainable human oddity? Here's a possible way to test it: first see if you can create sparks without moving around and rubbing against things. First, put on some thick shoes, hold a metal object in your hand, then sit on a non-conductive chair that's within reach of grounded metal. For grounded metal, plumbing, radiators, and the screw on an electric outlet all are examples. The best "insulating chair" would be a plastic-resin lawn chair, or perhaps an upside-down plastic waste basket. If the chair has metal legs and metal bolts on the seat, then it is *not* a good insulator.

Next, turn off the room lights, sit down, take your small metal object, and slowly touch it to grounded metal. Watch closely. Was there a spark? If so, then your body is no longer charged. As long as you don't rub your back or butt against anything, YOUR BODY SHOULD NOT CHARGE BACK UP BY ITSELF. Sit there for a couple of minutes without moving. Don't lean back in the chair, since you don't want your back to touch/peel from the plastic chair back. Now, touch the metal object in your hand slowly to the grounded metal again. Watch carefully. There should be no spark. If there WAS a spark, then something very weird is going on. Wait another minute or two and try again. If you can keep on creating sparks in this way, then you are an "electric people." Hey, if this works, drop me an email note at billb@eskimo.com. Maybe we can write this up and force the mainstream research community to take this phenomenon seriously. At the very least, please add your report to:

REPORT YOUR UNUSUAL PHENOMENA
http://amasci.com/weird/unusual/unusual.html

Another way to test yourself. Get a flourescent tube and find a darkened room. Connect the pins on one end of the tube to a ground connection such as a metal faucet. Turn off the room lights. Hold the tube in your hand and touch your fingers to the OTHER pins, to the ungrounded ones on the other end of the tube. See any flashes? Wait for a few minutes and try touching the pins again. A true "electric human" should be able to make the tube flash repeatedly by touching the pins. A normal human can do it too, but only if he/she is scuffing maniacally on a rug while the humidity is low.

Another, more exotic possibility: maybe it's not static. Maybe it's something else, Torsion Fields for example. The Russians believe that Torsion Fields explain telepathy, psychokinesis, hands-on healing, and many other "paranormal" phenomena. If the human aura exists, then Torsion Physics might explain it, and the "electric human" effect might come about because of a super-strong torsion effect which surrounds a particular person.

Possible cures: buy some conductive ankle-straps that lead to adhesive conductor foot-pads attached to your shoe soles, then walk only on conductive mats which are electrically grounded via a wire. These products are used in the electronics manufacturing industry and are available through "ESD" abatement companies (perhaps search for "ESD", "static", or "wrist strap" on the WWW.) ESD stands for "Electro-Static Discharge."

Simple but crude cure: wear a thimble on your finger, then constantly touch grounded metal objects during your travels. The painful "zap" will be eliminated, since it doesn't blow a pinhole in your flesh when the spark jumps. An un-tried high-tech cure: buy an "ionizing blower" from an ESD-abatement company. Expect to pay $200 or $300. (Don't mistake these for "negative ion generators", you instead want a "balanced polarity" blower intended for stopping ESD in electronics manufacturing.) These blowers send out large quantities of both + and - polarities of charged air. This adds neutralised yet movable charges to the air which make the air itself become conductive. The air then silently discharges any charged objects in the room (including any "Electric Humans".)

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