HUMANS AND SPARKS
©1997 William J. Beaty
The Cause, Stopping the Pain, and "Electric People"
"Static electric" sparks can be irritating and their cause sometimes
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?
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 will increase the charge-separation process,
friction isn't the cause. Whenever two different insulating surfaces
touch together, opposite charges found 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.
Measuring the "Static Electric" Voltage on your Body
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.
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
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
To prevent sparks entirely, we must somehow stop the charge separation
process. This can be done by:
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
- Changing your shoe soles to another type (try leather or ESD Shoes)
- Using a humidifier to raise the humidity in the room
- Spraying carpets, floors, and chairs with an antistatic coating
- Wearing metal-coated shoe soles (try alum. foil, but it's slippery)
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
- 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 carbon fiber tuft or small brush on a wrist bracelet
- Wearing a metal thimble, touch it to grounded objects.
- Wearing a grounded wire connected to a
- Installing a balanced-polarity ionizer fan
(try the $50 static eliminator # MI9957, from
- Installing a conductive carpet, and wearing a conductive ankle-cuff connected to a metal shoe plate
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.
Here's an idea you may wish to try. If you connect a
carbon fiber tuft or small brush
to a metal bracelet and wear it on your wrist, the tips of the carbon
fibers will send your excess charge into the air. This technique is used
on airplanes to drain away thunderstorm charge. Of course the carbon
brush will not work as well as a wrist strap with a ground cord. But it
should greatly reduce the size of sparks you encounter when walking
around out in public. And at the same time, you can bump the carbon
brush against any doorknob or car door before you grab it. In that case
it will discharge your body entirely.
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 advertised 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
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
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. Buy the kind which has a
metal "alligator clip" to connect to grounded metal. While you wear a
grounded wrist-strap, your body cannot charge up at all. Or try an
anti-static ankle strap to connect your body electrically
to the floor. Really you are supposed to use these with conductive
grounded carpets, but if your floors are slightly conductive, the ankle
strap will help drain away your body's charge.
CAR DOOR SPARKS
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
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
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
A research paper: The
Control of Body Voltage Getting Out of a Car, from JCI
List of gasoline fires caused by static sparks.
While dry weather and carpet-scuffing will charge up your body,
the source of some human-body sparking is a mystery. There are reports of
rare people, "Electric Humans," who spontaneously develop high voltage on
their bodies and who suffer the continuous problem of "static" sparks.
sparking occurs regardless of footwear, clothing, humidity, or even
motion! Electric humans are forever getting zapped whenever they touch
other people, or when they touch large metal objects. For the rest of us,
"static sparks" can only occur when humidity is very low, and we
walk across certain carpets, or when we wiggle around while sitting upon
certain car seats or 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
Humans" are different, and seem to become electrified all the time, all by
themselves, without involving the friction or the contact/separation of
R.A. Ford mentions two cases of Electric Humans in chapter 13 of his book
(1991 Tab Books). In one case from 1837 a woman could repeatedly jump
sparks 1-1/2" long to a large smooth metal object while she stood unmoving
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
1920s 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)
ARE YOU AN "ELECTRIC HUMAN" IN THE SEATTLE AREA?
As a Seattle resident, do you get doorknob sparks even in the summer?
Zap your loved ones? Kill all computers, wristwatches and light-dimmers?
If so, would you be
interested in playing with different ways to stop your static charges
problem? I have some ideas for cures, but no victims on which to
experiment! If you live in Seattle (or Tacoma, Bellingham, etc.),
contact me at
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
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
In order to create a static electric imbalance on our bodies other than
through "contact electrification" 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.
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 strong a positive charge-imbalance on
body; an imbalance which is equal and opposite to the charged air being
breathed out. But why would our lungs be producing electrified air? One
possibility: when microscopic bubbles burst, the natural surface-charge of
the water will cause the spray of tiny droplets to have a negative charge.
If the liquid on the inner surface of alveoli in our lungs should be full
micro-bubbles, then our lungs might become VandeGraaff generators.
Another possibility: certain viruses grow outwards from cells using
long filaments. Smallpox does this. If you catch a virus which spreads
through the air because it launches viral "spores" from your lungs, those
spores might carry enough of an electric charge that they will stick to
any surfaces that they encounter (such as other nearby humans.)
Evolution might favor such a capability. But the spores would also act as
charged air, and whenever you breathed outwards, your body would aquire an
increasing opposite charge. In other words, the "electric human syndrome"
might be caused by viruses, it might be an actual static
electricity disease that you could
catch from another "electric human!" Think about it: cold viruses spread
themselves by causing people to cough and sneeze. The "electric human"
virus would spread itself by causing people to breath out virus-laden air
(and the annoyance of the electric charging would just be a side-effect.)
Hmmmm, maybe those prisoners in 1930 didn't actually have Botulin
poisoning, maybe they had some other ...illness.
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.
NOTE: Exploding Light Bulbs! Here's an interesting bit of science
trivia. When incandescent light bulbs get old and weak, sometimes they
explode. This isn't an Unusual Phenomenon. Instead, it's caused by an
electric arc inside the bulb. When the light bulb filament breaks in half
inside the bulb, sometimes the two ends are close together. Sometimes a
powerful electric arc leaps between the tungsten wires. When this
happens, the light changes color. It becomes brighter, and much more
white. But the bulb can't put out more than normal wattage, right?
WRONG. If the filament happens to be rotated vertical inside the bulb,
the electric arc can rise like a flame. It can skip around the filament
and leap between the two filament-support wires. When this happens the
bulb can put out up to 1400 watts! It glows intense blue white for an
instant. But then the pressure of the hot gas inside the bulb causes the
bulb to pop. BANG! Glass fragments all over your carpet! So, if you
have an old incandescent bulb which is near the end of its life, and an
"electric human" pushes it over the edge, it may just go dark. Or rarely,
it may suddenly flash bright blue-white like an electric welder. Then go
NOTE2: 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." But do the surfaces inside
human lungs spew out droplets of water? We're not talking about
condensation here; the wet surfaces would have to eject droplets. (Maybe
they do, since doctors find that the air coming from the mouths of victims
of chicken pox and other diseases can infect others.)
DOES YOUR BODY PRODUCE HIGH VOLTAGE? A SIMPLE TEST
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
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.
Faucets, sinks, radiators, and the screw on an electric
outlet all are
examples of grounded metal.
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, so
sit on a phonebook or a thick stack of newspaper.
Next, turn off the room lights, sit down, firmly hold your small metal
object, and slowly touch it to grounded metal. Watch closely. Was there
a spark where the object touched?
If so, then your body is no longer charged. But the first spark is
normal. Now, 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
few minutes and try again. If you can keep on creating
sparks in this
way, yet nothing except your arm is moving, then you are an "electric
people." Hey, if this works, drop me an
email note at .
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
REPORT YOUR UNUSUAL PHENOMENA
Another way to test yourself. Get a flourescent tube and find a darkened
room. Use a piece of wire with clean ends to connect the pins on one end
of the tube to a ground connection such
as a metal faucet. Lay the fluorescent tube on a table within easy reach.
Turn off the room lights. Hold a small piece of metal and touch this
metal to the OTHER pins, to the ungrounded pins on the
other end of the tube. See any flashes inside the tube? (The first
flash is normal.) 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 on one end of the tube
while the pins on the other end are grounded. A normal human can do it
too, but only if he/she is scuffing maniaclly on a rug while the humidity
Possible cures: buy some conductive ankle-straps that lead to adhesive
conductor foot-pads attached to your shoe soles, then walk only on
which are electrically grounded via a wire. These
products are used in
the elctronics 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".)