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Big Lake Death Shines Spotlight On Electric Shock Drowning

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Concern is growing over a hidden and deadly danger as more cabin and lake home owners electrify their docks.

Each year unsuspecting swimmers are killed when power to boat lifts, shore stations and dock lighting leaks into the water. As a rural Big Lake neighborhood learned, it takes just a tiny amount to disable, shock and then drown a child or adult.

It happened on the Fourth of July in 2013, when Big Lake was buzzing with holiday fanfare, swimming, boating and relaxing in the summer sun.

"People were out there at the cabin, just you know, trying to enjoy the weekend, getting ready and set up for fireworks and all that, Big Lake resident Casey Neuerenburg said. "We, all of the sudden, heard a commotion over at the neighbor's.

Their neighbor, Dan Peterson, was going to charge his boat battery. An extension cord led to the charger he held in his hand.

"He was such a good guy -- so helpful," Peterson's neighbor Keith Hamrin said. "This was a guy who was pretty handy. I'm sure he understood -- just didn't do the right thing at the right time."

Peterson lost his footing and fell into knee deep water. Instantly, his muscles were paralyzed by the electric field of the submerged power cord.

Chief of emergency medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center, Dr. Jim Miner says the electric shocks cause intense pain. But in a lake, pool or tub, it's far worse.

"Eventually, once you're cramped up, you can't move at all," Miner said. "But if you're in water and you can't move, because your muscles are all stiff from a muscle cramp, you're going to sink and you're going to drown."

Peterson's sister jumped in to help and was shocked too, but miraculously survived.

"You don't think about water and electricity being all that much of a problem," Hamrin

It's known as Electric Shock Drowning, or ESD, and it's responsible for hundreds of deaths nationwide.

"It takes about 10 miliamps to bring on the onset of skeletal muscle paralysis," ESD expert Ed Lethert said.

Lethert says what's so frightening is that electricty can leak into the water without you knowing, and so slight, it doesn't even trip the typical circuit breaker.

"If you have circuits running out to your dock, they have to be GFCI protected," he said.

Those types of breakers are designed to trip by the tiniest electrical fault, but even they can fail. Experts say wherever there's an electrical circuit leading down to a dock or waterfront, you should never assume the water is safe for swimming, because the slightest leak of electricity can reach out 150 feet."

That's why marinas prohibit swimming. By the time a leak is detected it could be deadly. It's also why many are choosing solar-charged, 12-volt boat lifts and lighting schemes.

"Most of these were situations where people were merrily going along their way and suddenly, something catastrophic happens," Lethert said.

There are a lot of ways you can prevent ESD from becoming a danger this summer. It begins with having a licensed electrician inspect any circuits leading to your shoreline.

For more preventative information, visit Electric Shock Drowning Minnesota online.

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