Summer months should be filled with family fun and many people spend time on freshwater ponds, pools, lakes, and rivers keeping cool. Swimming always comes with risks, but even those who don’t enter the water need to be aware of a silent killer that can strike even the most fit and experienced swimmers.
Electric Shock Drowning, or ESD, is a little known and often-unidentified killer of swimmers in freshwater. The human body acts as a receiver of electric energy in freshwater as the current in the water gets stuck in the body while searching for a ground.
Swimmers can lose muscle control due to the shock, along with the ability to stay above water, resulting in drowning on top of the electrocution exposure. There are no visible warning signs of electrified water, and once you jump or fall into electrified water (or it becomes electrified while swimming), it can be too late. Electricity can enter the water in a variety of ways: improperly wired pumps, boats, dock lighting, or stray currents from other electrified sources.
Prevent: Learn about ESD and discuss it with people who could be affected. Never swim within 100 yards of any freshwater marina or boatyard. If you own a boat that docks at a marina, ask the marina operator to post “no swimming” signs and ask if they follow NFPA 303 guidelines for marina protection.
Boat owners should have their craft tested once a year for electricity leaks and install equipment leakage circuit interrupters (ELCIs) or ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) as needed. These systems should be installed and tested by a qualified electrician. Always use UL certified shore power cords to run power to a boat (NOT household extension cords).
Private dock owners should never permit swimming within 100 yards of docks using electric power. Any electric service to a dock should be professionally installed to meet the same standards as on-boat equipment. If any swimming is done off your dock, be sure all shore power (and the power of neighboring docks) is completely shut down. Consider using a sensor that can be placed in the water to detect and warn of dangerous electric current.
Respond: If you feel tingling or shock in the water, don’t swim directly towards the shore (the current will be stronger closer to the source). Try to get someone’s attention to let them know what’s happening. Stay upright in the water and back away in the same direction you first encountered the problem. Return to shore 100 yards or more away from the dock and alert the dock owner of the problem.
Anyone who regularly uses freshwater sources for recreation should be trained in CPR, as CPR can save the life of someone suffering ESD. If a victim in the water may have ESD, don’t enter the water and become a victim yourself. Reach, throw, and row, but don’t go. Turn off all power sources to the shore, call 911, and get the victim out of the water for treatment.
Awareness and preparedness for ESD should be an important part of your summer water fun. For more information on risk prevention during your summer activities, contact your local independent agent. They can provide tips and resources to help you enjoy summer safely!