What is electric shock drowning (ESD) & how to prevent it

Whether at home or on vacation, boating, fishing and swimming can be fun ways to enjoy the great outdoors. And safety precautions like life jackets are a given for millions of families who take to the water. But there is an unseen danger that lake-goers everywhere should be aware of. It’s called electric shock drowning, or ESD.

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Power For Your Life · Lake and boating safety

What is electric shock drowning (ESD)?

Electric Shock Drowning (ESD), occurs when a person drowns after being electrocuted while swimming in water that is charged with an electrical current.

According to the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association, between 10 and 15 milliamps, which is just 1/50 the wattage of a 60 watt light bulb, can cause drowning. They also report that most ESD deaths have occurred in public and private marinas and docks.

What causes ESD?

Outdated wiring and a lack of proper safety equipment on boats and docks can cause situations where electricity “leaks” into the water. It’s a particularly dangerous hazard because it’s impossible to tell by sight if the water is energized.

A sobering story of ESD

The Ritz family was stunned when their son Lucas was killed while swimming with his life jacket on while being closely supervised by his mother. The danger could not be seen but was silently lurking in the water. Electricity was leaking into the water from a boat plugged in to shore power. Unfortunately, people are killed each year by what’s now known as electric shock drowning (ESD). The Ritz family wants others to learn how to avoid ESD and stay safe.

How to prevent ESD?

  1. If you are in the water and experience a tingling feeling, resulting from an electric current, shout to let others know. 

  2. Try to stay upright, tuck your legs up to make yourself smaller and 

  3. Swim away from anything that could be energized. 

  4. Do not swim toward a boat or dock ladders to get out.


How to help someone in electrically charged water

If you see someone who you suspect is getting shocked, follow these instructions:

  1. Do not immediately enter the water to save them.  

  2. Throw them a floatation device

  3. Turn off the shore power connection at the meter base, and/or unplug shore power cords. Try to eliminate the source of electricity as quickly as possible; then 

  4. Call 9-1-1 immediately.


Additional resources:

American Boat & Yacht Council 

Safe Electricity

Plus, learn more about how to keep yourself and those you love safe around electricity.