Electric Shock Drowning

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.  Higher levels of AC current in the water will also result in electrocution.  Electric Shock Drowning (ESD) has become the catch all phrase that encompasses all in-water shock casualties and fatalities.

Although Electric Shock Drowning can occur virtually in any location where electricity is provided near water, the majority of Electric Shock Drowning deaths have occurred in public and private marinas and docks.  The typical victim of Electric Shock Drowning is a child swimming in or around a marina or dock where electricity is present.  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 marina’s or dock’s power supply.

Would you consider stepping into a bathtub or swimming pool with a hair dryer?  Think of the boat as the hairdryer.  If an electric fault occurs on a boat while it is connected to a marina’s or dock’s shore power and the boat or marina is not properly wired to meet current ABYC and NFPA standards, the water surrounding the boat will become electrified.

WHY IS ELECTRIC SHOCK DROWNING A SILENT KILLER?

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 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.
  • Under the typical scenario, the victim’s muscles become paralyzed by the electrical current, he or she is unable to swim, and ultimately drowns.  Unless there is a witness nearby to experience and report the sensation of electric shock in the water, the victim’s death is typically labeled a common drowning.  In the vast majority of Electric Shock Drownings, the victim’s autopsy shows no signs of electrical injury and investigators often never learn that electricity was the cause of the drowning.
  • Until very recently, there has been very little public awareness about the danger of Electric Shock Drowning.  As a result, Electric Shock Drowning continues to kill and new families are devastated on a yearly basis with very little public awareness.

 

HOW FREQUENTLY DOES THIS OCCUR?

How many unexplained drownings of healthy vibrant people around boats and marinas have there been?  The answer – many.

  • How many of these unexplainable drownings have likely been caused by Electric Shock Drowning instead of cramping, excessive alcohol use, or some other factor? The answer – many.
  • The number of verifiable in-water deaths due to Electric Shock Drowning is, in all likelihood, just the tip of the iceberg.

Preventing Electric Shock Drowning:

  • NEVER swim in or near marinas, docks or boatyards.
  • Tell others about the danger of Electric Shock Drowning. Most people have never heard of ESD and are unaware of the danger.
  • If you are a boat owner, have your boat inspected by an electrician with current ABYC (American Boat and Yacht Council) Electrical Certification or by an ABYC Certified Technician. Boats with alternating current (AC) systems should have isolation transformers or equipment leakage circuit interrupter (ELCI) protection, comply with American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) standards, and should be serviced by an ABYC Certified® Technician.  Click here to learn about isolation transformers. 
  • Talk to Marina owners or operators about the danger of electric shock drowning. Ask them to install GFCI’s on all shore power pedestals and on all marina wiring circuits. Ask if they are having their marinas regularly inspected by qualified electricians who are familiar with National Fire Protection Association Codes: NFPA 303 and NFPA 70. ​

"NO SWIMMING" Around AC Powered Docks:

The ESDPA strongly discourages swimming around boats, docks, and marinas that use AC electrical power for any purpose (boat power, electrical outlets, lighting, boat lifts, aerators, etc.).   It is the ESDPA’s position that swimming around boats, docks, or marinas using AC electrical power should be strictly prohibited.  We recommend that signs be posted to warn people of the dangers associated with swimming around any equipment powered by AC electricity. Additionally, for marinas, docks, and boatyards, we advocate for the establishment of a “NO SWIMMING” policy, supported by appropriate signage, notifications, facility monitoring, and enforcement by appropriately trained staff.   

ESDPA Policy Statement Concerning the Use of “Green Light for Swimming” devices:

​The ESDPA neither promotes nor endorses the use of voltage or current detection devices as a “green light” for swimming activities around boats, docks, or marinas where AC electrical power is installed or in use.  The use of these devices is recognized only to the extent that they may serve to warn the owner or operator of potentially dangerous electrical conditions around their dock or marina.  These devices should never be used as an indication that the waters around boats, docks, and marinas are safe for swimming.  Please review the ESDPA Position Statement on "Green Light Devices". 

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