Cottage Q&A: Electric shock drowning

A "No Swimming" sign in front of a lake By BrandonKleinVideo/Shutterstock

Last year, I heard about some cases of electric shock drowning. Should I be concerned at the cottage?—Kyla Stephens, Parry Sound, Ont.

Well, it sure doesn’t hurt to know the risks. Electric shock drowning occurs when current gets into the water—usually freshwater—and incapacitates a swimmer, causing them to drown. It’s possible in any situation where electricity has the opportunity to leach into the lake: faulty wiring for dock lights or a pump; a boat plugged in to a powered boathouse that starts to leak current; a corded power tool accidentally dropped into the water. You’ve been hearing about it recently because electrically powered docks, and equipment such as boat lifts, are more common than they used to be.

“You may not have power at your dock, but if a dock even 100 yards away does, you’re at risk,” says David Rifkin, the vice-chairman of the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association.

If the amount of current in the water is small—one milliamp, or one one-thousandth of an amp—a swimmer might only feel “a mild tingle,” says Rifkin. One hundred milliamps, on the other hand, could paralyze or kill.

Scary stuff? Well, yes. But reality check time: current can’t escape from a properly functioning electrical system. So, make sure any wiring is done by a qualified electrician who knows marine electrical codes and that any power source near the dock or boathouse has a working GFCI system, says John Gullick, the chair of the Canadian Safe Boating Council. Shut off power to the boat or dock before swimming. And use cordless tools; there’s no risk of a cord getting into the water, and “there’s also no tripping hazard,” says Gullick.

Lessons to learn from the Osoyoos Lake boating tragedy.

If you’re in the lake, and you feel a tingle, swim away from any dock or boat—it’s likely the source of the current. Unless you’re sure that you’ve eliminated the source of the electricity, never get into the water to help someone experiencing ESD. “Throw, row, tow,” says Gullick: throw them a life ring or a lifejacket to hang on to; row out to them in a wooden boat; or use a wooden paddle to tow (or push) them away from the potential source of electricity.

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This story was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Cottage Life.

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