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Thomas J. Songer

University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Thunderstorm-Related Deaths Occur Mainly in Men and Involve Sports or Vehicles, Reports University of Pittsburgh Researcher

ATLANTA, April 28, 2003 Men are more than twice as likely to die during thunderstorms than are women, and most cases involve a vehicle or sports. These findings from a University of Pittsburgh study were presented Monday, April 28, at the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions Safety in Numbers meeting in Atlanta.

We found that deaths from thunderstorm-related weather conditions center around flash floods and lightning strikes, and the victims are primarily male, said Thomas J. Songer, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology, Graduate School of Public Health, and assistant professor of neurological surgery, School of Medicine and Center for Injury Research and Control, University of Pittsburgh. In deaths from flash floods and high winds, most of the victims were in a vehicle, usually engaged in an attempt to drive through the water. With regard to lightning strikes, most of the victims were involved in sports or recreational activities, or in work-related activities at the time of death.

Dr. Songer examined data on thunderstorm-related deaths in the United States from 1994 through 2000. Specific weather elements included thunderstorm winds, flash floods, tornadoes and lightning. Data included circumstances of death, age, gender, activity, location, work relatedness, date, time and vehicle involvement.

A total of 1442 deaths were identified; 70 percent were males. Two-thirds occurred outside the home, and most of these occurred in males during flash floods or lightning strikes. Specifically, the highest percentage of deaths from flash floods involved driving/transport (65%); from lightning involved sports/recreation (36%) or work (21.8%); from tornadoes involved outdoor activities (40%) or driving/transport (23%); and from high winds involved driving/transport (35.6%) or boating/fishing (23%).

When a thunderstorm strikes, the best thing to do is to get into a building. But when that's not possible, questions arise over whether to seek low or high ground; to remain in a vehicle or to get out, said Dr. Songer. Judging by the numbers of deaths from various weather conditions associated with thunderstorms, the proper course of action appears to depend upon what weather conditions one is facing, and where one is at the time. Lightning seeks the highest point in an area, which puts sports and recreation enthusiasts at risk during activities that involve a wide-open playing field, golf course or lake. Getting into a car is advisable if possible. On the other hand, when near a rising body of water one should abandon one's vehicle and seek higher ground to avoid flash floods.

Established in 1948, the Graduate School of Public Health is world-renowned for contributions that have influenced public health practices and medical care for millions of people. It is the only fully-accredited school of public health in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and is one of the top-ranked schools of public health in the United States. It is one of 14 schools across the country to be designated a Public Health Training Center by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Center for Injury Research and Control is an interdisciplinary, comprehensive program involving six schools and 18 departments of the University of Pittsburgh. The center conducts injury control research, disseminates information on injuries, provides training for health care professionals and informs the public and community leaders on injury control measures. It is one of 10 centers in the United States to receive official designation of injury control research centers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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