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A review of electric-shock drowning incidents

By Marcelle Dibrell

Every year, reports of electrocutions and electric-shock drownings make headlines. While it is true that reports are rare, according to the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association, there is a good probability that many unexplained drownings of healthy people may have been related to electric shock. 

According to the association’s website, the number of verifiable in-water deaths due to electric shock drowning is, in all likelihood, just the tip of the iceberg.

ESD is the result of a typically low level AC current in fresh water passing through the body with sufficient force to cause skeletal muscular paralysis, which renders victims unable to help themselves. Higher levels of AC current in the water will also result in electrocution. ESD has become the catchall phrase that encompasses all in-water shock casualties and fatalities.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that from 1990 to 2002 there were 60 electrocutions and close to 50 serious electric shocks involving electrical hazards in and around swimming pools. The statistics break down as follows:

28 from plugged-in radios or stereos, extension cords or power tools.

13 from underwater pool lights.

10 from pool pumps.

9 from sump pumps, pool vacuums or pressure washers.

The data shows that at least 23 of the fatalities were the result faulty pool equipment or wiring. In many cases, routine electrical inspections could have prevented both injury and death, but most municipalities have no regulations in place requiring regular assessment of electrical systems. Rather, inspections are generally required only at the time of initial construction or after permitted electrical work.

That means that millions of swimming pools and spas may have unsafe electrical conditions. However, many consumers, including pool owners and swimmers, are not aware of the risks of electric shock drowning. 

Once an incident does occur, the public is quick to assign blame. Their pool service technician may seem like the obvious place to start. 

For liability reasons alone, when it comes to pool and spa professionals, it is essential to be educated about electrical safety and to know the National Electric Code as it pertains to pools and spas, NEC article 680. 

Many electrocutions and electric shock drowning incidents are preventable. 

The following stories detail a year’s worth of electrical incidents related to pool equipment and circuitry: 

Sept. 3, 2016, Raleigh, North Carolina —

Seventeen-year old Rachel Rosoff was found unresponsive in a community swimming pool. She was the lifeguard on duty and was shocked when reaching into the water to check pool chemistry. 

Another pool worker received a shock trying to pull her from the water. A faulty pool pump and broken grounding wire were cited as the cause. 

The required GFCI was not installed. The pool was in correct configuration for the 1978 NEC. Some rewiring in 2011 should have required a permit, which would have triggered an inspection requiring a GFCI.

May 19, 2017, Florence, Alabama —

Sixty-year-old Carl McGrady and his son Lucas were killed in a swimming pool. Carl had been in his pool for cleaning and was later found submerged by his adult son, who jumped in to rescue him. Lucas was also overcome by electric shock and later died. Carl’s wife was also injured by electrical shock trying to help. The exact cause was not reported.

May 31, 2017, Palm Desert, California —

Four people including two children were hospitalized with minor injuries after being shocked at the Marriott Shadow Ridge Resort swimming pool. The exact cause was not reported.

July 15, 2017 Virginia Beach, Virginia — 

Several people were treated for electric shock after swimming in a community pool. According to the homeowners association, people at a family pool party began to complain of feeling shocked while in and around the pool area. 

Everyone was able to get out on their own and no one lost consciousness or showed visible signs of injury. Two children were taken to the hospital to be checked out and were released.

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