The death of fifteen-year-old Carmen Johnson seemed as mysterious as it was tragic. The high school cheerleader had jumped into Alabama’s Smith Lake for a quick swim after a picnic.

Authorities believe that the cause of her drowning may have been due to a hidden danger that can be found near freshwater docks, marinas, and boats.

As Fox 13 News reports, Carmen’s death was ruled an accidental drowning, but the true cause of the accident had more to do with the increasing number of electric appliances and devices on boats and docks. When such devices are not properly installed or maintained, they can “leak” electricity into the water, endangering anyone who comes close enough to contact the electrical current. The result is called electric shock drowning (ESD).

Because an electric current wants to find its source, electricity that seeps into fresh water will look for a better conductor— like the human body. Though it only takes a moment for the current to pass through the body, it’s enough to cause muscular paralysis, drowning, and even death.

Often there is no warning that the water is electrified, and conditions can appear safe until something gets turned on or otherwise causes an electric current to enter the water.

Though there are safety rules and guidelines regarding electric equipment on boats and docks, there are many ways for electricity to leak into the water, including frayed wires, improper installation, and a malfunctioning grounding system.

The Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association compares swimming near a boat and dock to getting into a bathtub with a hairdryer and estimates that electric shock drowning is likely responsible for most unexplained drownings around boats and marinas.

Avoiding electric shock drowning requires vigilance from both swimmers and those who own or maintain the boat or dock. Recommendations include:

  • Test your boat to make sure it’s not leaking electricity.
  • Have a qualified electrician take care of all electric work needed on your boat or dock.
  • Never use household extension cords to power a docked boat.
  • Do not swim within 100 yards of a dock, boatyard, or marina.

Because it is impossible to see the electric shock hazard, it is vital to take quick action if you suspect there is electricity leaking into the water.

  • Have all power cords and connections on the shore disconnected, turned off, and unplugged.
  • Warn others in the water to move away from the dock and/or boat and stop anyone else from entering the water.
  • If you think someone has been shocked, call emergency services immediately. Do not go into the water after him, though you can try to reach for him, throw him a lifesaver or rope, etc.
  • Try CPR on someone who appears unresponsive and do not stop until emergency crews arrive.

“The culture has always been to go swimming down at the docks,” ESD expert David Rifkin told Boating Magazine. “It’s a tough nut to crack, but if the dock has electrical power, don’t swim around it.”

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