Why Lightning Disproportionately Kills the Poor

Rajanish Kakade / AP

Seventy-nine people died this week in lightning strikes in India. Most of the dead lived in rural areas, and many were farmers. It’s the rainy season and storms are frequent this time of year. It might seem like an astonishing number in such a short time, but Indian government statistics point out that 2,000 people are killed by lightning strikes each year.

India’s population is about four times larger than that of the U.S., but about 2 people in 1 million die from lightning strikes in India; in the U.S., that figure is 0.3 per million.

The discrepancy holds for Europe, where lightning kills a tiny fraction of the population each year, about 0.2 people for every 1 million. Then there are parts of Asia and Africa, where lighting deaths can be 100 times higher. In Zimbabwe it’s around 20 per 1 million. In Malawi it’s 84 people per million. While lightning may seem to strike and kill at random, it’s mostly a problem of the poor.

As my colleague Rebecca J. Rosen has pointed out, the U.S. is a good example of how a country has gone from a relatively high rate of lightning deaths, to one of the lowest. One reason often pointed to is the move from farm to city. In 1900 about 60 percent of Americans lived in rural areas; by 2000 about 20 percent did. In step with that, lightning deaths decreased. This correlation is sometimes regarded as the cause of the decrease––and rural areas certainly are more dangerous when it comes to strikes––but in 100 years the U.S. population has jumped from 63 million to 323 million. There are more people everywhere, even in rural parts.

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Why then are people not fried by bolts in increasing numbers? The answer, in part, is plumbing and tractors.

In the 1890s, lightning most commonly killed people asleep on their beds inside their homes. That doesn’t happen anymore. By now, if  lightning strikes a home there’s enough wiring and plumbing for the electricity to ground out. In the 1920s, only 1 percent of homes in the U.S. had electricity and plumbing. By the 1930s, the U.S. had developed codes regulating both, and as more buildings followed those regulations they became safer. Since the 1950s, nearly all homes in the U.S. have both electricity and plumbing, and consequently, Ronald Holle, a meteorologist with Vaisala, the world’s largest manufacturer of meteorological equipment, told me lightning deaths inside homes in the U.S. have become nonexistent. In the past 20 years, he said not one person in the U.S. (excluding the elderly or disabled who were caught in fires started by lightning) has died from a lightning bolt that hit a home. But in poor areas of the world, homes may not have all those wires and pipes that help divert electrical shock. Those  homes often have a thin roof made of corrugated metal. And if lightning hits that, the bolt can jump to the nearest person.

The other place lightning often struck people in the 1890s in America was in the fields. One hundred years ago, 25 percent of lightning deaths in the U.S. were people working agricultural jobs. And that’s who died in India this week.

Every year Indian farmers make up a large portion of the 2,500 people killed by lightning in the country. A recent report by Holle, the meteorologist, looked at 969 lightning deaths in at least 10 Asian countries and found most farmers died working in rice paddy fields, which are often huge tracts of flat and flooded land. Holle wrote that what famers desperately need in these areas is someplace close to shelter: “Fully enclosed metal-topped vehicles can provide such a lightning-safe location but they may not be available nearby when needed … ”

An Indian farmer named Lal Babu Usvaha told The Guardian that “work is work. We can’t stop because of the weather. We have to keep working in the fields. But we feel scared when we see so many clouds, so much electricity in the sky.”

India has adopted newer farming technologies, but as the man who spoke with The Guardian points out, many poor farmers still use preindustrial methods to work the field. This was the same issue the U.S. had 100 years ago, and that began to change with the advent of the tractor.

Tractors used today in big U.S. agricultural operations are fully enclosed, making them as safe as a car during a storm. Tractors also reduced the number of people needed to raise and pick crops (see The Grapes of Wrath).

“The amount of time it takes to work a field has changed,” Holle told me. “Back then it might have taken you all day to do a small plot of land. Now it can be done in a few hours. ​​​​​​”

That’s another major factor: In developed countries, people work outdoors less, and so are at less risk of being caught in a storm and killed. Nowadays in the U.S., lightning almost exclusively kills athletes and outdoor-leisure enthusiasts––fisherman the most, then beach goers, then campers. For sports, it’s soccer players.

Other technologies, like the advent of CPR, have helped reduce lightning deaths. And another big factor has been information about lightning. John Jensenius, the National Weather Service’s lightning specialist, told me that the number of lightning deaths now are half what they were 15 years ago. Jensenius partly attributed this reduction to Lightning Awareness Week, which started around 15 years ago. Its credo: “When lightning roars, go indoors!”

But in poorer countries, it might not help even if they followed that motto. In some parts of Africa, lightning strikes that hit schools kill hundreds of children each year.

“It’s gotten to the point where some parents have said, ‘I’m not sending my kids to school because that’s where they get killed,’” Holle said.

The numbers are bit of a rough estimate, because not all countries keep the data, but each year lightning kills about 24,000 people. And while the strikes themselves may be random, the victims are almost exclusively poor.