Electric Shock Drowning: The What, Incidents and Prevention

Electric Shock Drowning: The What, Incidents & Prevention

The all-too-frequent, tragic reports about electric shock drowning victims losing their lives are sad reminders that the same hidden dangers of electric shock that exist with our swimming pools, saunas or hot tubs, can also be present in our lakes and other large bodies of water.

This is a danger that most people are completely unaware of. They understand the risk of electric drowning in the above scenarios because water and electricity are so intertwined given the use of water pumps, water lights, water jets and water heaters.

But out on a lake, where none of these things exist, people feel that they’re safe. Sadly, they’re not.

When the wiring on a boat or a dock or a boat launch or a marina is faulty and the electrical current is broken or interrupted, then electrical current often strong enough to cause muscle paralysis in a swimmer is dangerously released into the water.

In this blog post, I will discuss what electric shock drowning is, its causes, tragic incidents involving electric drowning and tips for preventing this tragedy.

What is electric shock drowning?

Generally, electric shock drowning occurs when faulty wiring sends electric current into water, thus electrifying the water, and a person such as a swimmer comes into contact with the electrified water.

The person becomes a conductor of electricity as it passes through the person’s body. This can cause paralysis of the person’s muscles, thus rendering the person unable to swim, which could ultimately result in drowning.

This is particularly true with boats and docks that carry electricity because faulty wiring or the use of damaged electrical cords and other devices on a boat or on a dock can cause the surrounding water to become energized.

Is a lot of electricity required to cause electric drowning?

No. It’s estimated that as little as one 50th of the amount of electricity used by a 60 watt light bulb is enough to cause an electric shock drowning due to muscle paralysis to the point that a swimmer may drown.

What is the origin of the electricity that causes an electric drowning?

If there is a break or interruption in the electrical current due to faulty wiring on a boat or a dock or a marina, then the electricity is released into the water, resulting in electrified water.

Electric shock drowning incidents

It’s one thing to talk about the specifics of what electric drowning is. It’s another to learn about the reality of this tragedy.

Below are examples of electric shock drowning incidents that can and do occur:

  • In Put-in-Bay, Ohio, a 19-year old was electrocuted when he came into contact with an undetected electrical current that his family’s 33-foot-long power boat was leaking into western Lake Erie. The boat had just been plugged in for “shore power.”
  • A young girl who was rafting and swimming in a lagoon in Toms River, New Jersey, was electrocuted when she touched the electrified rail of a metal boat lift.
  • A teenaged girl in Alabama died after coming into contact with currents from rusty electrical work at the dock in her family’s backyard.

What can be done for electric shock drowning prevention?

On an individual level, electric shock drowning prevention can be very difficult if not impossible because there is no visible warning and there are no visible signs that there is electrical current in the water and, thus, that the water has become electrified.

The Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association elaborates as follows on why electric drowning is a “silent killer”:

“In most circumstances, victims do not immediately feel electrical current when they enter or swim in the water around a marina or dock, thus giving the victims the false impression that it is “safe” to swim. Most often, electricity enters the water when an electrical fault occurs aboard a boat. Often, the electric fault occurring aboard the boat is intermittent. For example, the fault that places deadly current into the water may only occur when a light switch is turned on, or when a hot water heater, battery charger, A/C unit or other electrical device cycles on. Water can appear and feel “safe” and in a split second become energized with deadly electricity.”

However, here’s one vital piece of safety advice that everyone should follow:

Never, ever swim near a marina, a boat while it’s running or a boat launch or pad.

Here are more vital safety tips:

  • Obey all “No swimming signs.”
  • If you feel any tingling sensations while in the water, tell someone and swim back in the direction from which you came. Immediately report it to the boat, dock, marina or boat launch owner.
  • If you’re at a dock and you suspect someone is being shocked while swimming in a lake, swim away from the dock, ladder, or anything that could be the source of the electricity.

Helping a victim of electric drowning

It’s natural that we want to immediately rush in to help someone who has been or is being hurt, but we have to be very careful about doing that with electric drowning victims.

My advice for first-responders and Good Samaritans includes the following:

  • Do not enter the water because then you, too, may be affected and injured by the electrical current in the water
  • Turn off the power source as well as all nearby power sources
  • Call 911
  • Throw a life ring or life saver.
  • Exercise extreme caution if you try to remove a victim from the water. For instance, use an insulated device (such as fiberglass rescue crook).
  • If the victim does not have a pulse and not breathing begin CPR or use (AED) Artificial Electrical Defibrillator if available.

(Sources: Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), “Electric-Shock Drowning”)

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