This is the time of year when my electrifying personality really comes out — not necessarily a good thing because I shock most everyone I touch.
Last week in the drugstore, the cashier glared at me accusingly when she got a shock while taking cash from my hand. Even my dog Ollie hesitates to come too close to me when he sees my hair standing on end. I’m leery of touching anything metal, including the doorknobs in my home and the filing cabinets in my office.
I am an innocent victim of static electricity. Rather, the people I touch are the victims.
We’ve all had the experience of forgetting to put a fabric softener sheet in the dryer, only to find our socks clinging to our shirts like we had dried them with a bottle of glue. As we peel them apart we hear a crackling noise that can be a bit disturbing. This is static electricity at work.
Static electricity is the result of the electrons and protons in the atoms of an object being out of balance. All objects are made of atoms, which are made of protons (with a positive charge), electrons (with a negative charge) and neutrons (neutral, or no charge). The protons and electrons are usually equal in number so atoms are usually neutral. When objects rub together, some of the electrons rub off one and onto another. The object that lost electrons now has a positive charge and the object that gained electrons has a negative charge.
Since opposites attract, these two objects are drawn to each other, like the socks and shirts in the dryer. The crackling noise you hear as you pull things apart results from the electrons jumping back onto the object they came from to restore neutrality. Not all the electrons make it back.
Objects with the same charge, whether positive or negative, repel each other. When we take off our winter hat, electrons from our hair are transferred to the hat, leaving our hair positively charged. The hairs now repel each other and we end up with hair standing on end, trying to put distance between the other hairs on our head.
Static electricity is more of an issue in winter because the air is dry. Water is a conductor of electricity so when the air is humid, the moisture in the air allows extra electrons to “catch a ride” back to objects that have too few electrons. When the air is dry, like in our heated winter homes, it’s more difficult for the electrons to make it back, so the static electricity is discharged in “sparks.” These sparks are experienced by us as slight shocks.
So what can we do about this phenomenon?
Wearing fabric softener sheets is not the answer. If it’s your hair standing on end, after your kids or grandkids finish rolling on the floor laughing, try spritzing your hair lightly with a misting bottle of water. The moisture will help the errant electrons find their way to a place they are needed.
If you are shocking everyone you touch, I suggest you apologize profusely. So far, that’s working for me.
Jolene Wallace is the horticulture program assistant for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. Contact her at 561-7450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.