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Electric Shock Drowning: A Silent Killer

lake dock

July 22, 2019 -- McKenzie Kinley died this month while doing a perfectly normal thing: swimming in the family pool.

McKenzie was 10 and lived in Citrus Heights, CA. She was electrocuted as she swam. Memorial services are this week, and a GoFundMe page had surpassed the $15,000 goal for funeral expenses.

Electric-shock drowning happens 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.

The Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, which serves the community of Citrus Heights, responded to a report of an electrocution on July 14, says Diana Schmidt, public information officer and fire inspector II. CPR was in progress when the emergency responders arrived, she says.

McKenzie’s official cause of death was low-voltage electrocution associated with water submersion, says Kimberly Gin, the Sacramento County coroner.

With this most recent death, there have now been at least 98 reports of electric-shock drownings since 1986, estimates David Rifkin, the co-founder of the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association.

Many more people escape death but are affected and sometimes injured, Rifkin says. "We have about five or six times the number of near misses as deaths," he estimates. Statistics are difficult to compile, he says, since many incidents are unreported. And some of the 98 reports his association has received involve multiple people, he says, and not all of the reports have been confirmed.

The CDC has no statistics specifically on electric-shock drownings, but it does track unintentional drownings and says about 10 deaths a day are attributed to it. From 2005 to 2014, there were about 3,536 unintentional drownings not related to boating every year. Overall, about one in five victims of drowning are children 14 and younger.

Each drowning by electrocution brings pool and water safety to front of mind, Rifkin says, but people soon forget about the danger and get lax in their habits.

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, the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association says. Even so, salt water is not risk-free. The risk exists wherever there are water and electricity.

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

Depending on the level of the electric current, you can feel tingling or lose control of your muscles, he says. The current can also trigger a fatal heart rhythm. Or you can become so weak, you can't move, and you drown. And it can happen quickly, says Burke, who’s also graduate director of advanced safety and engineering management at the university.

There is no visual warning or other clue that water may be electrified, experts say. And it doesn't take much electricity to cause drowning. According to the association, as little as one-fiftieth the current in a 60-watt lightbulb can be fatal to a swimmer.I

Electric Shock Drowning Prevention

Awareness of the danger is the first step, experts agree. They offer these precautions:

  • Don't swim near marinas. Stay at least 50 yards (half a football field) away. Burke cautions swimmers to stay 100 yards away from docks.
  • If someone in the water appears to be shocked, don't try to jump in and save them -- you will probably be shocked, too. Instead, turn off the power, call for help, throw a preserver into the water, and warn others in the area to get away. 
  • Have your home swimming pool, whirlpool bath, boat, and dock inspected each year. The Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association says these need to be properly wired with a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). The devices turn off the power when electricity escapes into places where it can be dangerous.
  • Make sure your electrician is certified. Burke suggests hiring one certified by the American Boat & Yacht Council. Examine your equipment between inspections, and call an electrician if you see damaged wiring, he says.
  • Boaters who rent a slip should be sure the marina manager or owner schedules annual inspections by a certified electrician to be sure the power system on the dock is safe, Burke says. "You can also have an electrician come out and inspect your boat every year," he says.
  • If you swim in a neighborhood or community pool, talk to the homeowner association representative or pool manager to be sure they do regular inspections.
  • Be sure to report and fix any missing or loose caulking, Burke says. "Loose or missing caulking can allow water to get behind the pool, hot tub, or Jacuzzi walls, and therefore increases the likelihood of coming into contact with a live electrical component. It is also a sign that regular maintenance is not being performed."
  • ''Green light'' devices, which tell people there’s electricity in the water, get a thumbs-down from the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association. Although they can tell you of danger at that time, they can’t tell you that danger’s coming. Sometimes water can be safe at first, but then become electrified when someone on land turns on a switch.
  • If you are in the water and feel a tingling sensation, try to swim away from anything that could possibly be energized.
WebMD Health News Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on July 22, 2019

Sources

Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association.

Donald Burke, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and director of advanced safety engineering and management, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

David Rifkin, co-founder, Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association.

CDC: "Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts."

Al.com.

Diana Schmidt, public information officer and fire inspector II, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

Kimberly Gin, Coroner, Sacramento County, CA.

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