A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What can I do to prevent static shock?

March 20, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

I am having a very Pavlovian experience. In my office I am constantly getting shocked. My clothes are so full of static they're sticking to me like they're wet. After weeks of this I'm now afraid to touch door knobs and filing cabinets. Coworkers brush past me and get shocked. What's going on here? I wear rubber-soled shoes and everything. I've tried licking my fingers before touching metal and that didn't make a difference. Any advice?

My first piece of advice is to stop wearing rubber shoes. Rubber has a strong tendency to accumulate charge when rubbed against certain fabrics, and if your office is carpeted, that might be the culprit. You probably thought that rubber would protect you, being an insulator, but a static shock doesn't need to travel through your feet. If your skin is at a different electric potential than, say, the doornob you touch, a current will travel between your hand and the knob without needing to pass through anything else.

My second piece of advice is that whenever you're going to be touching anything which might shock you, get a key or coin or similar metal object out of your pocket, and touch it with that first. It's not actually the current which hurts in a typical static shock, it's the arc of current through the air. If you make contact with a key, then the arc won't need to make contact with your skin, so it won't hurt.

The final thing to keep in mind is that you don't want to be insulated, you want to be grounded, so that any static charge drains away rather than accumulates. One way to do this is by using an anti-static mat under your computer, assuming you have a computer. The mat has a wire that connects to any handy earth ground (a properly wired three-prong electrical outlet provides such a ground).  You can also get anti-static wrist straps, but they're more cumbersome--routine contact with the mat ought to be sufficient to discharge static buildup. You can purchase anti-static mats and straps at a computer store.

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