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Electric Shock Drowning: A Silent Killer

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June 15, 2017 — Many swimmers and boaters make water safety a priority, but one danger that’s still often overlooked is electric-shock drowning.

Electric-shock drowning occurs when an electric current, typically low-level AC current from boats,  docks or lights, “escapes” and shocks nearby swimmers. The shock paralyzes them so they can’t swim or help themselves.

Officials believe electric shock caused the April drowning deaths of two women at Lake Tuscaloosa in Alabama who may have been swimming near a pier that had an electric current. The incident occurred about a year after the electric shock drowning death of Alabama 15-year-old Carmen Johnson made national headlines. Earlier this month, four people swimming at a hotel pool in Palm Desert, Ca., were hospitalized after they received electric shocks. Their injuries were minor, according to press reports.

About 10 people a day, or about 3,800 annually, die from unintentional drownings, according to the CDC. Statistics about electric shock drownings are more difficult to come by.

Capt. David Rifkin, the cofounder of the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association, says the group has received 88 reports of electric shock drownings, some involving multiple people, and some dating back to 1986. In addition, they have numerous reports of ”near misses.” Rifkin says the group has not verified or confirmed all of the reports.

“It’s not something anyone thinks about,” says Kevin Ritz, the other cofounder, who in 1999 lost his son, then 8, to the tragedy. Yet, the risk is widespread.

Fresh Water Has Shock Potential

These tragedies are more common in fresh water, experts say. In fresh water, the body conducts electricity better than the water itself, according to the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association. Even so, salt water environments are not risk-free.

“The risk exists wherever there is water and electricity,” Ritz says.


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In many cases, electricity from docks, marinas, boats near marinas and from home swimming pools or jacuzzis escapes due to faulty wiring or other equipment. The electricity overwhelms your body, says Donald Burke, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama Birmingham. “You become part of that electrical path.”

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