Avoiding ESD – The Silent Killer

By Terry Harris

The dangers of mixing household electrical items and water, like placing a hairdryer near a bathtub, are commonly understood.  Now experts are warning boaters and swimmers that potential danger from electrical charges while outside also is real, and can lead to ESD.

Web MD describes ESD or Electric Shock Drowning as what happens “when an electric current, typically low-level AC current from boats, docks, or lights, escapes and shocks nearby swimmers,” paralyzing them. With the arrival of summer, the danger of injury or death due to unexpected electrical dangers in water environments is increasing, at least partly because generally there is no visual clue that water may be electrified and as little as one-fiftieth the current in a 60-watt lightbulb can be fatal to a swimmer.

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

Burke, also graduate director of advanced safety and engineering management at the university, added that it can happen quickly, and “depending on the level of the electric current, you can feel tingling or lose control of your muscles,” plus the electrical current can “trigger a fatal heart rhythm, or you can become so weak you can't move, and you drown.”

David Rifkin, co-founder of the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association, says on their website that while the number of confirmed cases of ESD is difficult to track as many incidents are unreported, “Many more people escape death but are affected and sometimes injured,” estimating that there are “about five or six times the number of near misses as deaths."

And while the CDC has no statistics specifically on electric-shock drownings, they do track unintentional drownings and report that about 10 deaths a day are attributed to that.

For water sports enthusiasts in rivers and lakes, ESD concerns are even greater than in salt water, as in fresh water the body conducts electricity better than the water itself.

Ray Phelps, Surry County’s Chief of Emergency Management, warns, “Any time you are operating a boat or around a running boat wear a life jacket to protect yourself from ESD.  That way, at least if you go unconscious after receiving a shock you can lessen the potential of drowning.”

“Make sure to stay up on boater safety and maintenance on all watercraft,” Phelps added. “And make sure you have your boats and any other watercraft maintained properly to make sure there aren’t any potential electrical hazards.”

Other advice offered by experts includes the following:

-        Avoid entering the water when launching or loading a boat as stray electrical currents in the water can lead to injury from shock as well as death from Electric Shock Drowning.


-        Make sure your swimming pool, whirlpool bath, boat, and dock (including that of a marina where you may rent a slip) are inspected annually and properly wired with a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) to turn off the power when electricity escapes.

-        Never modify the electrical system on a boat or shore power. Code-required safety mechanisms are intended to give alerts if something is wrong with the boat or shore power. Have a licensed, qualified professional determine the cause of the problem.

-        When swimming, stay at least 50 yards (half a football field) away from marinas and 100 yards away from docks. If you feel a tingling sensation while in the water, immediately turn and swim in a direction where you had not felt the tingling. Exit the water as quickly as possible, avoiding metal ladders or rails which may increase the risk of shock.

-        If someone in the water appears to be shocked, do not jump in to try and save them. Instead, turn off the power, call for help, throw a preserver into the water, and warn others to get away. 

“With continued education about the presence of electrical hazards in water we can help reduce the risk of electric shock drowning from happening,” urges Lorraine Carli, Vice President of Outreach and Advocacy for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), of “this troubling trend.”

Resources for swimmers, boat, and pool owners, including videos, tip sheets, and checklists are available at www.nfpa.org/watersafety.

“We encourage everyone to share these safety resources with people they know,” Carli added, “so everyone can safely enjoy the water this summer.”