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How Electrical Current Affects the Human Body

Lightening Striking in a City
Three primary factors affect the severity of the shock a person receives
when he or she is a part of an electrical circuit:
  • Amount of current flowing through the body (measured in amperes).
  • Path of the current through the body.
  • Length of time the body is in the circuit.

Other factors that may affect the severity of the shock are:

  • The voltage of the current.
  • The presence of moisture in the environment.
  • The phase of the heart cycle when the shock occurs.
  • The general health of the person prior to the shock.

Effects can range from a barely perceptible tingle to severe burns and immediate cardiac arrest. Although it is not known the exact injuries that result from any given amperage, the following table demonstrates this general relationship for a 60-cycle, hand-to-foot shock of one second's duration:

Current level
(Milliamperes)
Probable Effect on Human Body
1 mA Perception level. Slight tingling sensation. Still dangerous under certain conditions.
5mA Slight shock felt; not painful but disturbing. Average individual can let go. However, strong involuntary reactions to shocks in this range may lead to injuries.
6mA - 16mA Painful shock, begin to lose muscular control. Commonly referred to as the freezing current or "let-go" range.
17mA - 99mA Extreme pain, respiratory arrest, severe muscular contractions. Individual cannot let go. Death is possible.
100mA - 2000mA Ventricular fibrillation (uneven, uncoordinated pumping of the heart.) Muscular contraction and nerve damage begins to occur. Death is likely.
> 2,000mA Cardiac arrest, internal organ damage, and severe burns. Death is probable.

References

  • NIOSH [1998]. Worker Deaths by Electrocution; A Summary of NIOSH Surveillance and Investigative Findings. Ohio: US Health and Human Services.
  • Greenwald EK [1991]. Electrical Hazards and Accidents - Their Cause and Prevention. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Wet conditions are common during low-voltage electrocutions. Under dry conditions, human skin is very resistant. Wet skin dramatically drops the body's resistance.
Dry Conditions: Current = Volts/Ohms = 120/100,000 = 1mA
a barely perceptible level of current

Wet conditions: Current = Volts/Ohms = 120/1,000 = 120mA
sufficient current to cause ventricular fibrillation
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If the extensor muscles are excited by the shock, the person may be thrown away from the circuit. Often, this can result in a fall from elevation that kills a victim even when electrocution does not.
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When muscular contraction caused by stimulation does not allow the victim to free himself from the circuit, even relatively low voltages can be extremely dangerous, because the degree of injury increases with the length of time the body is in the circuit. LOW VOLTAGE DOES NOT IMPLY LOW HAZARD!
100mA for 3 seconds = 900mA for .03 seconds
in causing fibrillation
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Note that a difference of less than 100 milliamperes exists between a current that is barely perceptible and one that can kill.
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High voltage electrical energy greatly reduces the body's resistance by quickly breaking down human skin. Once the skin is punctured, the lowered resistance results in massive current flow.
Ohm's law is used to demonstrate the action.
At 1,000 volts, Current = Volts/Ohms = 1,000/500 = 2 Amps
which can cause cardiac arrest and serious damage to internal organs.
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