It’s sweet summertime and that means it's time to take the boat out, go to the lake and enjoy the cool, clear water. But, a hidden danger is present in our waters that many of us don’t know about. It’s called Electric Shock Drowning or ESD. It’s the result of the passage of a low level AC current through the body with enough force to cause muscular paralysis. Higher levels of AC current in the water will also result in electrocution. In most cases of electric shock drowning, the victim’s muscles become paralyzed by the electrical current, and he or she is unable to swim, resulting in drowning. 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 most cases, autopsies show no signs of electrical injury so investigators never learn that electricity was the cause of the drowning.
Electric shock drowning can occur in any location where electricity is provided near water but the majority of ESD deaths have occurred in public and private marinas and docks. Unfortunately, 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. This type of electrical shock can happen in fresh water where minute amounts of alternating current are present.
ESD is a silent killer because there is no visible warning or way to tell if the water surrounding a boat, marina or dock is energized – or if it could become energized quickly with fatal levels of electricity. In most cases, victims do not immediately feel current when they enter or swim in the water around a marina or dock, which gives the victims the false impression that it is “safe” to swim.
Electricity usually enters the water when an electrical fault occurs aboard a nearby boat. And, most of the time this fault is intermittent. A fault may occur only when a light switch is turned on or other electrical device aboard the vessel cycles on. The water can appear and feel perfectly safe, but become energized with deadly electricity in a split second.
What can we do to prevent electric shock drowning?
• Never swim in or near marinas, docks or boatyards.
• Tell others about the dangers of ESD. Most people have never heard of it and are unaware of the danger.
• If you are a boat owner, have your boat inspected by an electrician with current American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) 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 ABYC standards and should be serviced by an ABYC Certified Technician.
• Talk to marina owners and operators about the danger of ESD and ask them to install GFCI’s on all shore power pedestals and on all marina wiring circuits. Also ask if they are having their marinas regularly inspected by qualified electricians.
This summer, enjoy your boat, the water and all the recreational opportunities Florida has to offer – just remain aware of the possible dangers that could be hidden just beneath the surface of that cold, clear water.