Electric Shock Drowning – What You Need to Know

Drowning is a leading cause of death for children and adults. It's also one of the most preventable causes of accidental death. Drowning can occur so quickly and without any warning. This is why electric shock drowning—also known as ESD—is so frightening: It happens so quickly that you might not know what hit you before it's too late.

What is Electric Shock Drowning?

Electric Shock Drowning (ESD) is the result of the passage of a typically low-level AC current through the body with sufficient force to cause skeletal muscular paralysis, rendering the victim unable to help himself / herself, while immersed in fresh water, eventually resulting in drowning of the victim. In some cases, the shock itself is fatal, since the person will suffocate when their diaphragm is paralyzed; however, in others it incapacitates them causing them to drown. Although Electric Shock Drowning can occur virtually anywhere where electricity is provided near water, the majority of ESD deaths have occurred on public and private marinas and docks

What causes Electric Shock Drowning?

The electricity that enters the water and causes Electric Shock Drowning originates from the wiring of the dock or marina, or from boats that are connected to the marinas or dock’s power supply.  Since more devices requiring power are present on docks and marinas, an increased risk of faulty wiring near the water ii becoming more of a threat each and every day.

Boats themselves also present a big risk for causing conditions where ESD can occur.  According to the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association, a random sampling of shore power cords in several freshwater marinas in the U.S. unfortunately displayed that approximately 13% of the boats tested were leaking potentially lethal amounts of electrical (AC) current into the water.

And, it takes only small amounts of leaking AC to incapacitate or electrocute a person. As small an amount as 15 milliamps can cause paralysis, 100 milliamps – or a third of the amount of electricity need to light a 40-watt light bulb – can kill a person in seconds

Why is Electric Shock Drowning known as a silent killer?

Electric Shock Drowning is known as a silent killer because there is no visible warning or way to tell if water surrounding a boat, marina or dock is energized or within seconds will become energized with fatal levels of electricity. In most circumstances victims do not immediately feel electrical current when they enter or swim in the water around a boat, marina or dock, thus giving the victims the false impression that it is "safe" to swim. 

Due to the difficulty of detection, many drownings caused by ESD are not properly reported or investigated. An autopsy won’t reveal evidence of ESD, so investigators have to rely on eyewitnesses hearing cries for help or accounts of others in the water feeling a tingling sensation. Otherwise, it will be reported as a drowning. Meanwhile the real cause of death — the electricity in the water — goes undetected.

How to perform a rescue when someone is hit by an electric current

You should first attempt to turn off the source of the electricity (disconnect). If you cannot locate the electrical isolating source, you can use a non-conducting object, such as a wooden pole, to remove the person from the electrical source. Emergency medical services should be called as soon as possible.

Do not touch the person until you are sure power is turned off. And, never jump into the water after someone who you suspect may be drowning due to electric shock.

How can you prevent ESD?

There are many ways you can prevent ESD. A few that come to mind include:

  • Ensuring that all electrical hookups on piers and boats in the vicinity are code compliant and safe. By law, all connections near water are required to have working ground fault circuit interruption technology, GFCI. Have a regular inspection by an electrician or qualified technician if you're not sure about your electrical system's safety standards.
  • Consider installing an alarming device like WaveLink which will alert you if dangerous electricity is present in the water.  A system like WaveLink can provide a warning for you and your loved ones to take action and can even turn off your power when dangerous electricity is detected.
  • Always wear life jackets – especially children!

ESD can happen quickly, so make sure you're prepared.

Electric shock drowning (ESD) occurs when a person comes into contact with an electric current and is immediately submerged in water.

ESD can happen quickly, so make sure you're prepared. If you see someone who has been hit by an electric current and is then submerged in water, turn off all power immediately.   Do not jump in to rescue the person yourself but have a hook on-hand or floatation device to try and fish the person out of the water while calling 911 if at all possible.

ESD is a serious threat, but it's also one that can be prevented. If you're going to be near water, make sure you know what to do if someone gets shocked while swimming. You may not have time for an elaborate rescue--in fact, most people don't even know how much danger they could be in until after it happens! But by following these tips and practicing them beforehand so they become second nature when needed most everyone will be prepared when faced with this deadly type of drowning.