Cellphone electrocution is real and dangerous

A 14-year-old recently died from electrocution by a cellphone. Here’s what can be learned from it

Cellphone electrocution

As an attorney handling electrocution cases, all of my cases are tragic. But the ones that break my heart over the years are the ones where a child is involved.

That feeling came back to me recently when I read about the tragic death of a 14-year-old Texas teen. The cause of death: cellphone electrocution.

While taking a bath, Madison Coe had her cellphone in hand, hooked up to a charger and an extension cord. She was found unresponsive with a burn mark on the hand that her grandmother said would have grabbed the phone.

The death of this teen, who was ready to enter high school in the fall, serves as an important safety reminder that water and a direct current never mix. One key lesson from this cellphone electrocution is that it doesn’t matter how big or small the appliance — if it’s plugged in, immersion in water will result in electrocution or electric shock injury.

This is why there are safety rules with electric appliances. Yes, smartphones do fall under the electric appliances category. But because they are so small, and so ubiquitous in our society (they even seem to be attached to our children’s hands), people can forget this most basic of electrical safety rules.

Past behavior made cellphone electrocution inevitable

What troubles me most about Madison’s death is that her stepmother, Felisha Owens, admitted how both she and Madison had sat in the tub with a cellphone plugged in several times before:

“I did it, she did it,” Owens said through tears.

As painful as it is to admit, Madison’s death was based upon learned behavior that this was safe. I want to stress how easy it is for people to make this same innocent mistake. Many people don’t think of phones as an electrical appliance. And this cellphone electrocution death is not unique.

In March 2017, a British man was electrocuted while bathing and holding an iPhone that was being charged. He suffered severe burns on his chest, arm and hand before dying. Thousands of people bring cellphones or iPads into the bath with them. I know a half-dozen people who put a Ziploc bag over their mobile device and bring them into the bathtub to read or watch movies.

But people get lulled into forgetting that no matter how small the device, if it is charging and you are exposed to water, the direct current can be deadly.

Avoiding cellphone electrocution incidents

The most obvious way to prevent a cellphone electrocution is to keep a charging cellphone fully away from water. Dr. Tseng King Jet of the Singapore Institute of Technology has further charging advice for cellphone users:

  • If you must charge your mobile phone while using it, use a portable charger such as a powerbank. These devices have the same voltage ratings of 5 volts, which don’t yield enough power to electrocute users, whereas a live socket delivers 230 volts of electrical charge.
  • Never charge your cellphone or powerbank from an electrical outlet in wet places such as bathrooms and swimming pools. Water is a good conductor of electricity, as the 230 volts of electrical charge from the outlet can travel along the water trail to the user.
  • If you think your phone or charger is having potential electrical problems, have it checked by a qualified professional.

My thoughts and prayers are with Madison’s family.

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