### Static Electricity and How to Avoid It

Have you ever felt almost afraid to touch a metal door knob, counter, or similar surface for fear of that little annoying zap you might get upon contact? Well, that’s static electricity for you my friend, and you’re not alone in not looking forward to its shenanigans. Before you can effectively take steps toward lessening its effects in your life, you must first learn what static electricity is and how it is created.

Everything in the world is made up of atoms, and each of these atoms are made up of a combination of sub-atomic particles – protons, neutrons, and electrons. The protons and neutrons form what is called the nucleus, or the core of the atom, and the electrons can be thought of to orbit this core. Protons have a positive electric charge and electrons have a negative one.

For our purposes, you can think of the nucleus – the protons and neutrons – to be stable, whereas the electrons are often less so and tend to be easily “knocked out” of orbit and transferred to other atoms. This process is called ionization, where an atom’s proton-electron ratio is altered via the removal or addition of electrons.

Most atoms in their natural state are neutral, having no net electrical charge. But when they become ionized, depending on whether they lost or received electrons, they will either have a net positive or negative charge respectively. This is a true case of “opposites attract”, where atoms that are charged will attract the opposite sign – positive to negative and negative to positive.

The opposite is true as well – like charges will repel one another. This explains why a balloon will momentarily stick to a wall after you rub it against your clothes – because you just added additional electrons to the balloon and gave it a net negative charge causing it to be attracted to the (comparatively) positively charged wall.

So what do atoms have to do with static electricity and people?

Well, our bodies are made up of atoms the number of which is so huge it’s usually written using scientific notation: 7×1027 atoms. That’s 7 followed by 27 zeros – 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000! A pretty insane number. And like I mentioned above, most atoms have a neutral charge, including aaaall those lovely atoms that make up our bodies.

So when we walk across a carpeted floor or our clothes rub against our skin, our bodies accumulate an electric charge via the transfer of electrons from these various materials. This net electric charge will then look for a way to discharge itself the next chance it gets. This is right about the time you reach for the stainless steel door knob and feel that less-than-wonderful sensation.

In terms of electricity, there are two general kinds of materials – insulative and conductive. Insulative materials are those like rubber and wood that inhibit the flow of electrons whereas conductive materials are those like most metals, water, and any highly saturated mediums – even humid air. This is why static electricity is more common in drier winter months.

In order to understand this better we need to see why this usually doesn’t happen in summer or wetter months and climates. The wetter air surrounding our bodies is conductive to a certain extent, discharging any buildup of electrical charge before accumulating too much. Conversely, dry air acts as an insulation which doesn’t allow this discharge. This explains why this may happen in air-conditioned spaces even when it may be humid outside.

Tips to Avoid Static Electric Shocks

Now that we understand how static electricity works, it’ll be easier to understand how to avoid it. The primary reason for the buildup in the first place is because you weren’t grounded and therefore accumulated the electric charge due to the absence of an exit path. There are several ways you can either minimize these shocks significantly, or at the least, make it so they’re not as painful.

• Open a window or two. Remember that humidity in the air causes higher electrical conductivity, therefore introducing humidity to a dry atmosphere can help.
• Use hand moisturizer regularly. By keeping the parts of your body most prone to shock moisturized, you can prevent excessive buildup.
• Wear leather shoes. Although leather isn’t a conductor per se, it isn’t nearly as good an insulator as rubber and is therefore better equipped to discharge a buildup.
• Use an antistatic wrist band. These are often used by those handling sensitive computer chips and similar parts that can be severely damaged by even small amounts of static electricity.
• When all else fails, try rapping your calloused – or at the least, tougher – knuckles against the surface in question to discharge any buildup prior to touching it with your more sensitive finger tips.

(Here’s an informative and easy-to-understand web page on electric current, voltage, why birds don’t get electrocuted, and in what ways and conditions electricity can be dangerous to the human body – Allaboutcircuits.)