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'Shocking' carts mystery unraveled

6:19 PM, Dec 2, 2011   |    comments
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Paul Russum called 9NEWS Friday morning to ask us to investigate a series of shocks he has been experiencing on several trips to the discount warehouse.

"I'm walking down the aisles and I'm getting shocked and I'm like, 'What was that?' I'm looking at the cart thinking, 'There's no way it came from the cart.' So I'm going again and I get shocked again and I'm like, 'What in the world is happening to me?'" Russum said.

Russum says he didn't think much of it until it happened again on another trip to the store. He says when he asked management, they said they were aware of the problem and had taken several complaints from other customers.

One of those customers is Kori Wakefield. She and her 1-year-old son were shopping on Friday afternoon.

"It doesn't so much hurt as it's just annoying. I complained to management and they said they knew about it, but they didn't say if they were doing anything to fix it. I think they should if they want their customers to have a good shopping experience," Wakefield said.

9NEWS contacted Sam's Club on Friday and we were sent this statement:

"Every once in a while one of our clubs has something like this happen. The way we address that is by placing a small chain on the cart, which ultimately grounds the cart to help avoid the buildup of static electricity. We have them on our carts at this location and have ordered additional chains for carts to have on hand. We want to help make our members' shopping experience more comfortable and are taking this extra step to ensure that," Christi Gallagher, Sam's Club spokesperson, said.

9NEWS' science specialist, Steve Spangler, was able to get to the bottom of this mystery. After doing some of his own research - talking to his wife and looking online - his theory was that static electricity is behind the shock.

He called his friends at Costco in Englewood to ask if he could do a science experiment inside the store. With a Van de Graaff generator (an electrostatic generator), some tubes with Styrofoam and other Spangler trinkets, he walked around the store to see if his tools would react to any static build up. After strange stares from customers and a few laps around the store, he determined his theory was correct.

"The culprit is the rubber wheel. It's literally scraping across the floor and building up electricity, flowing through the metal cart and then you're the discharge," Spangler said.

Spangler says the static shock from pushing the cart is equal to about 2,000 volts, not enough to do any harm but enough to "feel it." He says the shock is not any more dangerous than walking across your carpet and it is no more dangerous to people with pacemakers. Spangler says static electricity is especially prevalent in Colorado because of our dry climate.

The Costco store says it had been receiving complaints from customers too and, just within the last week, began installing new anti-static wheels on all of its carts.

Several news tippers said they had experienced similar things at other stores across Denver and several articles report shocks at several stores across the country. It is unclear if the manufacturer is the same on the "shocking" carts and whether or not the industry has realized this issue.

Spangler says there are a few things people can do to cut down on static electricity like increasing the moisture on the cart by wiping it with an antibacterial wipe, wearing rubber gloves or attaching a ground wire to dangle from the cart. However, even by taking such measures, Spangler says there is no way to completely eliminate static electricity.

"Even if you were wearing a rubber body suit, I still don't know if that would work," Spangler joked.

To read more about static electricity, visit these links:

University of Denver Professor Dr. James B. Calvert: http://mysite.du.edu/~jcalvert/phys/elechome.htm.
University of Colorado Physics Department http://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/balloons.

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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