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2 Investigators: Stray Voltage Dangers

CHICAGO (CBS) -- There are sidewalks across the Chicagoland area that are electrified. If you touch the wrong light pole, or step on a sidewalk metal junction box, you can be killed. 

City officials are not testing to find these dangers, so 2 Investigator Dave Savini went in search of these hot spots.

Joined by officials from Power Survey Co., a New Jersey-based business that travels the country using special equipment to detect stray voltage, they found light poles that were electrified. One was in the South Loop, at the corner of Jackson and Federal. 

"That's full line voltage on this pole," Dave Kalokitis, Power Survey's chief engineer, said.

Stray voltage can run through metal grates in sidewalks and sewer covers. CBS 2 found 116 volts coming off a light pole just a block away from Mayor Daley's house.

A loose wire inside a junction box, causing stray voltage, is being blamed for the death of 8-year-old Camden Belfield.  He was at a school ball field near Peoria, Ill., when he touched a pole while playing tag. He did not know it was electrified.  

Camden was on life support before dying the next day. 

"It rips your heart out," the boy's mother, Annette Reese, said. "You pray for God to take you and leave him."

Other victims include a 14-year-old from Baltimore and 9-year-old from Ohio, each killed by touching metal fences. Electrocutions also have happened in Las Vegas, Miami and Hawaii. 

A 30-year old woman was electrocuted when she stepped on a sidewalk junction box in New York. Her death led to mandatory stray voltage testing there. Tom Catanese and his business, Power Survey Co., does the testing.

"We've done this testing in 60 cities across the country, and have found these problems in all of them," he said.

While testing in Chicago with CBS 2, Power Survey found 40 dangerous locations in just a few hours.  The locations could be deadly if, for example, someone touches the pole while also stepping in water.

"It's pretty clear the infrastructure is old," Catanese said. "It's aging and it's failing."

Broken or frayed wires and decaying insulation often are to blame. 

High-volt stray voltage was found across from a school that was just blocks from President Obama's Chicago house. A light pole  outside Wrigley Field had 117 volts; Savini put a sheet of paper near the pole and it caught on fire.

Aside from human victims, dogs have been killed, too.  One belonged to Matthew Mock. 

Mock's former wife was walking their dog Smokey in Grant Park when they stepped on a metal junction box that had a loose wire causing it to become electrified. The dog got so spooked while being electrocuted, he mauled her hand and leg as she tried to save him.

As CBS 2 identified the hot spots, city crews quickly responded to fix the problem. But the Band Aid approach is not good enough for Annette Reese.

"I vowed that his death would not be in vain, that I would try to make it worth something and to help someone else from this ever happening," she said.

Catanese says there is likely thousands of stray voltage dangers in Chicago.

A Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman says the city agency has been installing corrosion-resistant poles and, because of our investigation, it is speeding up research efforts.

For a list of stray voltage locations CBS 2 uncovered, click here.

If you suspect stray voltage in Chicago, you are asked to call 311.

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