Mr. Green Car: Electric shock drowning — the bad combination of water and electricity

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

I write about all sorts of transportation-related issues, most of them environmental. But in this week’s column, I will be evangelizing a safety concern — electric shock drowning (ESD) — that I feel needs everyone’s attention.

A few years ago, I read these stories about people feeling a paralyzing pain while swimming in freshwater marinas. The stories were sad; children were swimming in the marinas when they were overcome by painful shocks. Seeing their children in trouble — a parent dove in to rescue them and was soon in the same incapacitated state. Both died. I’ve had stray electrical current eat a hole in my own boat propeller — it is there — I’ve seen it myself.

Recently, BoatUS Marine Insurance published another, more detailed article about the subject in their magazine, Seaworthy. Editor and longtime world cruising sailor Beth Leonard did an exceptional job of telling stories to warn of the danger of ESD, how it happens, what you can do to prevent it and how to deal with people suffering from it. I obtained her permission to reprint/spread the story. Excerpted here are the opening paragraphs. I highly recommend reading her article in full at: [a clickable link is available in the online version of this column at]

One year ago, over Fourth of July weekend, Alexandra Anderson, 13, and her brother Brayden Anderson, 9, were swimming near a private dock in the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri when they started to scream. The parents went to their aid, but by the time the siblings were pulled from the lake, they were unresponsive. Both children were pronounced dead after being transported to a nearby hospital. About two hours later, Noah Winstead, a 10-year-old boy, died in a similar manner at Cherokee Lake, near Knoxville, Tenn., and Noah’s friend, 11-year-old Nate Park Lynam, was pulled from the water and resuscitated but died early the following evening. According to local press reports, seven other swimmers were injured near where Noah died. These were not drowning victims. In all of these cases, 120-volt AC (alternating current) leakage from nearby boats or docks electrocuted or incapacitated swimmers in fresh water.

This little-known and often-unidentified killer is called electric shock drowning, or ESD, and these deaths and injuries were entirely preventable. In just four months last summer, there were seven confirmed ESD deaths and at least that many near misses; in all likelihood, dozens more incidents went undetected. Every boater and every adult who swims in a freshwater lake needs to understand how it happens, how to stop it from happening, and what to do — and not to do — if they ever have to help an ESD victim.”

Big boat marinas usually have power posts to supply boaters with the power they need to run their air conditioners, microwaves, refrigerators and other comforts of home. Often the result of wiring faults they are unaware of, electricity escapes into the water creating a serious hazard to anyone in the water. This same leakage can happen any time there is 120-volt AC power being supplied to a boat — such as a battery charger at a private dock — on any lake or river. As a rule of thumb, do not swim in a marina — the chances are too great that there will be stray current in the water. In other places, be aware of the hazard and react properly if you think someone is suffering from it. Again, from the article — follow these recommendations:

If you’re in the water and you feel tingling or shocks …

DO NOT follow your instinct to swim toward the dock! SHOUT! Drowning victims cannot speak, let alone shout. Let everyone know what’s happening so they’ll understand the danger and react appropriately.

Try to stay upright and back out of the area the way you came, warn any other swimmers in the area of the danger, and then head for shore 100 yards or more from the dock.

Alert the dock or marina owner and tell them to shut the power off to the dock until they locate the problem and correct it.

Go to the hospital to make sure there are no lingering effects that could be dangerous.”

If you have to rescue an ESD victim

Know how to distinguish drowning from ESD — tingling, numbness or pain — all indicate ESD.

Fight the instinct to enter the water — many rescuers have died trying to help ESD victims.

Call for help. Use 911 or VHF Channel 16 as appropriate.

Turn off the shore power connection at the meter base and/or unplug shore power cords.

Get the victim out of the water. Remember to reach, throw, row, but don’t go.

If the person is not breathing or you cannot get a pulse, perform CPR until the Fire Department, Coast Guard or ambulance arrives.”

If you have a boat, or are anywhere near boats while swimming, you should know that ESD has the potential to kill. Again, the article, which is available as a pdf download as well at the link cited above — is well worth your reading and spreading the word. A little knowledge can avoid a potential tragedy.

From the Aug. 28-Sept. 3, 2013, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!