What Canadians need to know about electric shock drowning and how to prevent it

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How to avoid Electric Shock Drowning
WATCH: Here are some examples of how you can avoid Electric Shock Drowning – Jul 8, 2017

With summer in full swing, you’re probably spending a lot of time by the water, in a boat, or by the marina. But have you heard of electric shock drowning?

This year, tragic reports of people dying from this obscure form of drowning have surfaced. Now health officials are warning the public, especially those heading outdoors and into the open waters, to make sure they’re safe.

Electric shock drowning is when electric currents leak into surrounding bodies of water, causing the water to become energized.

People unknowingly jump into the water only to be electrocuted so severely, they lose consciousness and drown. It’s a relatively new phenomenon as power-driven docks, and electrical equipment on boats gain in popularity. In some cases, faulty lines or appliances could be what’s making the electric current leech into the water.

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“Summer is definitely our peak season for drownings…and unless there’s actually a sign posted, most people are completely unaware that there could be an electrical charger in the water,” Gail Botten, Red Cross program advisor in water safety, told Global News.

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“In a lot of ways, it’s a silent killer. It’s something people need to know about particularly if they keep a boat in the marina. We want people to use the water and enjoy the water, but this is a precaution we all need to take,” Michael Vollmer, vice chairman of the Canadian Safe Boating Council, said.

Here’s what you need to know about electric shock drowning.

What is electric shock drowning and how does it happen?

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the proliferation of powered docks, electric boat lifts, lights, shore-power connectors on docks, and even electrical machinery on boats.

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ESD occurs when alternating currents seep into fresh water because of faulty equipment, wires or other issues. The current ends up in the water and the risk is highest in fresh water – lakes, rivers, ponds – because of differences in conductivity. Salt water is naturally highly conductive.

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“If you feel tingling back up and out of the water. Witnesses have said they’d see someone swimming and all of a sudden, he stopped swimming and sank. Your heart stops, you face cardiac arrhythmia, you drown,” Vollmer warned.

“If you’re in the water and you feel tingling, you should back out,” he said.

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There are common scenarios when electric shock drowning occurs, according to Ontario Sailing:

  • A sailor could be cleaning his or her boat’s bottom before a weekend race
  • A powerboat owner could be swimming to inspect a new propeller while tied to the dock
  • A marina employee could fall off the dock
  • A boat owner could be climbing out of the water using a metal ladder on their swim platform
  • A group of kids could be jumping off the marina dock and using the marina’s emergency escape ladders to get out
  • An orange extension cord could be draped across a lake dock to charge a ski boat’s battery

Even small amounts of leaking current can be deadly. Just 15 milliamps (mA) is enough to cause skeletal muscular paralysis, Vollmer warned.

Watch out for bad weather conditions, too. During lightning and thunderstorms, steer away from the water. Lightning can strike the water and energize it with electricity.

How prevalent is Electric Shock Drowning?

We don’t know. It’s a burgeoning file of study, for starters, but it’s also hard to accurately track because drownings are often attributed to other factors, such as weak swimming, not being supervised by an adult or accidental falls.

“Drownings are rare around marinas but a lot of times people don’t know why someone drowned and they’re not looking for ESD,” Glenn Lethbridge, executive director of Ontario Sailing, told Global News.

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Red Cross data estimates that about 457 Canadians drown each year. Kids between one and 14 account for 10 per cent of the deaths.

How can you avoid Electric Shock Drowning?

There are some things you can do to mitigate the risk of ESD, according to the trio of experts.

Test your boat for stray currents: If you own a boat, backyard pool, hot tub, or dock, make sure ground fault interrupters are working smoothly before a swimming event.

Use signage to warn of potential risk: If you’re at a dock, pier or marina, keep an eye out for signage warning of potential stray currents. Try to avoid swimming near marinas, yacht clubs or docks with live electricity flowing nearby.

Never jump in after someone who has fallen victim to ESD: If you jump in, you’ll face a similar outcome. Your best bet is to try to retrieve them with an object that’s non-conductible, such as a reaching pole made of plastic or fibre-glass over aluminum and metal.

Use plastic ladders, instead of metal ones: This will help to avoid transferring electricity in the water.


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