Understanding Electrocution Threshold: The Power of Watts in Killing Humans

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In summary, the amount of power in Watts needed to kill a human is primarily determined by the current flowing through the body, rather than the voltage. A current of 20ma is enough to be lethal, and the resistance of the body and the type of shock (AC or DC) can affect this. With DC shocks, the heating power is what causes damage to internal organs, and a high enough voltage can even cause ionization of the body. A current limiter device can affect the total energy input and potentially spare a person's life.
  • #1
bimbim
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Understanding the amount of 'power' in Watts to kill a human. It is said that around 20ma is enough to kill. So I would have thought it does not matter about the voltage as long as 20ma is passing through the heart. obviously it would require different voltages depending of the resistance between the 2 contacts through the body. I've heard that 12 can be enough to cause a metallic taste in the mouth and dizziness. This would perhaps require the body to be very wet and a large area of it to be touching the contacts-perhaps leaning over a car bonnet without a shirt (Earth) and tightly gripping a positive connection to the battery. Basing my question on the 240v ac shock and that no more than 20 ma does pass through the heart do we just use Ohms law to work out the power used? W=VI This would give 240 x 0.02= about 5 watts. If this is near the truth what really puzzles me is if a circuit was set up so that a poor human volunteer was to encounter a huge voltage with a current limiter of 10ma max. Sounds like he would be spared his life due to the low current. What about 10ma at 1,000,000 volts! this sounds like 1000 watts to me. This is what I don't get. Any ideas! Thanks, Al
 
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  • #2
bimbim said:
Understanding the amount of 'power' in Watts to kill a human. It is said that around 20ma is enough to kill. So I would have thought it does not matter about the voltage as long as 20ma is passing through the heart. obviously it would require different voltages depending of the resistance between the 2 contacts through the body. I've heard that 12 can be enough to cause a metallic taste in the mouth and dizziness. This would perhaps require the body to be very wet and a large area of it to be touching the contacts-perhaps leaning over a car bonnet without a shirt (Earth) and tightly gripping a positive connection to the battery. Basing my question on the 240v ac shock and that no more than 20 ma does pass through the heart do we just use Ohms law to work out the power used? W=VI This would give 240 x 0.02= about 5 watts. If this is near the truth what really puzzles me is if a circuit was set up so that a poor human volunteer was to encounter a huge voltage with a current limiter of 10ma max. Sounds like he would be spared his life due to the low current. What about 10ma at 1,000,000 volts! this sounds like 1000 watts to me. This is what I don't get. Any ideas! Thanks, Al

If the current is being limited by some other device and the fault current experienced by the person is less than the lethal amount (which is typically 0.1 amps for the average human), then the person is not "feeling" the full voltage.

Current is the primary variable that will kill you in a circuit so don't think of the power being output by the source since you have a current limiting device in the circuit, but rather the current flowing through the person (specifically across the heart).

The power calculation for AC is slightly different due to the time varying nature of it. Mathematically it would be [tex] P = VI \cdot \cos \theta [/tex], for average power that is.

Hope that helps.

CS
 
  • #3
stewartcs,
Yes I should have realized about the full voltage not being felt just as across a light bulb or heater due to different amounts of resistance. Short of connecting a volt meter in between would the resistance of the circuit(through the person being shocked) need to be known? Also I realize that AC is an RMS value due to frequency. If just for arguments sake it would be possible to set up some sort of circuit where the current is limited to way below the fatal level and an enormous voltage was applied surely a huge amount of power in Watts could be achieved. Have you any figures for the wattage through a human at say 50ma 240v ac and to see the difference dc?
 
  • #4
The mechanism for a fatal shock with AC and DC is different.
With AC you are trying to force the heart to beat at the AC frequency - the hearts own muscles provide the power to damage it not the electricity. If you put electrodes directly on the heart you need only a tiny current.

With DC you are doing damage only by the heating power - so with a high enough voltage you would be able to ionise the body, even with a low current.
 
  • #5
Ok yes that is also true so not getting to my point. a relatively small amount of current is needed from an ac shock due to sending the heart out of sync so to speak. I think it is a large charge of dc they use to take it out of fibrillation.
If we stick to dc then and consider death by heating the internal organs. Again a current limiter device fixed at 10ma and million volts output. Surely at this voltage the resistance of the human body is irrelevant and please let's just assume he is feeling a full 1000,000. If 1000 watts is going through the poor soul would it cause the same damage as 1000 v with a current limiter at 1amp. again not including any resistance perhaps he is soaking wet for example! Would it be the same kind of heating and perhaps pain? A bit morbid but just want to understand how it works.
 
  • #6
Sounds correct ( leaving aside second order effects like fluids in the body and changing resistance) it's just the total energy input that matters.
A core temperature increase of 5degc will kill you. Assuming you are water and weigh 80kg it would take 30mins to absorb enough heat from a 1000W source to kill you (assuming perfectly insulated - no sweating etc)

I don't know if the nervous system is sufficently conducting to transfer most of the enrgy into more delicate areas such as the brain - which would have a quicker effect.
 
  • #7
I don't think we can ignore resistance. Isn't it the resistance of the bvody that is causing the heating? But I'm not talking about external resistance (if the guy is soaking wet), I'm talking about the internal resistance the human body creates by being a nig bag of salt-water.
 
  • #8
Perhaps I am thinking about those taser guns and cattle prods. Trying to determine which hurts the most in a constant dc voltage. I do realize these devices use electronics to pulse or oscillate. Putting it a different way, assuming for some reason the shock is not fatal and went say just through one hand, if a 1000 watts went through your hand which would initially hurt more the higher voltage/lower current or higher current lower voltage. I am thinking it is the nerves that feel pain from higher voltages regardless of the current, though that is up to a point.
 
  • #9
after reading this i have a question... what are the limits to DC and AC to getting an electric shock... so when we touch the + and - of a battery we absorve current? since we have high impendance the current is approx 0. is this right?
 
  • #10
tko_gx said:
after reading this i have a question... what are the limits to DC and AC to getting an electric shock... so when we touch the + and - of a battery we absorve current? since we have high impendance the current is approx 0. is this right?

Thats correct - the hand to hand resistance of your skin varies from a few*100K for dry skin to only a few K for sweaty skin. So a 12Volt car battery would only be capable of putting a milliAmp through you even under the worst conditions.

See here for some more examples http://www.allaboutcircuits.com/vol_1/chpt_3/4.html
 
  • #11
'Possible heart fibrillation 500 MA Dc after 3 seconds' Also in this example in 'All about circuits' the writer says that with dry skin the resistance across his body is about 1 meg ohm. So let's say that to carry half an amp across this the equation would be V=IR. =0.5x1000,000. So that sounds like 500,000 V DC! I suppose if this would be correct in theory other factors would come into play such as the massive amount of voltage enabling it to penetrate the pours into the less resistive fluids of the body.
 
  • #12
Yes the body isn't a simple resistor.
Personally having a 1,000,000 source connected across me would lead to a pretty rapid increase in skin moisture!

There a lot of other factors, AC frequency, muscles gripping onto a cable etc which can lead to huge variations in the danger of a shock. That's why industrial systems tend to be very cautious and treat anything over 30V as potentially dangerous.
 
  • #13
110v @ 5 amps can give a nasty burn and is quite painful.
 
  • #14
wolram said:
110v @ 5 amps can give a nasty burn and is quite painful.
The voice of experience?
 
  • #15
I have a faint memory (and could be wrong) that being wet on the skin increases the chances of surviving in lightning accidents. I guess that's due to the fact that most of the current will flow on the skin rather than through the vital organs.
 
  • #16
mgb_phys said:
The voice of experience?

Yes, i have a (y) shaped scar on one hand as a reminder, and it is VERY difficult to
do any thing (break free) even for 110v.
Edit

It is the circular scar not the (y) shaped one.
 
Last edited:
  • #17
Non lethal high voltage shocks are very common. Ever been Zapped by static after charging up on a carpet? Static voltages can easily exceed 10,000VDC. Since the current is very low, they are painful but non fatal. You could say that this is an example of a current limited high voltage shock.
 
  • #18
also, for people in the country with livestock, an electric fence has a high enough voltage to deal with variations in resistance of the connection to ground (and in the ground itself in wet or dry conditions), but if it was known to be lethal to people, they wouldn't let such be manufactured. there is a high resistance in the transformer secondary winding which, if you think about it as a Thevenin Equivalent, makes it into a (nearly) constant current source. and has been said before, it's the current that kills you (and "High Voltage" is often dangerous because it has all the current in the world backing it up).
 
  • #19
what i would like to know in understanding voltage and current is-if someone was subjected to 2 electric shocks say from hand to forearm one with a current limited to 10ma, the other unlimited. if the voltage was 1000 v ac and the same conditions, the resistance of the skin being so that 1000 watts can pass through the arm with the unlimited test, test to last 1 second and none fatal. would it be a similar pain as it has the same high voltage or does the pain solely come from the current passing through the body?
 
  • #20
How much pain you feel is complicated. It depends not only on the voltage but on frequency and exact path the surface current takes.
 
  • #21
mgb_phys said:
How much pain you feel is complicated. It depends not only on the voltage but on frequency and exact path the surface current takes.

Yep, an electrolytic cap hurts a heck of a lot more than 120 VAC!
 
  • #22
  • #23
Thanks for owning up Wolram and thanks rbj for the link.

With no load on the circuit, from one contact across the back of my hand to another contact(OK, ok...I know) 240v, shocks, makes your muscles snap tight and you blurt out loudly, something like "Bblugghh", as your hand is thrown away. I have witnessed other zaps (I did my Electrical-Fitter apprenticeship straight out of High School), the loud "Bblugghh" voicing appears universal.

Once again with no load on the circuit but the back of the hand brushing across terminals from a 3 phase pump motor - ouch, I can only describe it as being like sticking your whole arm in a large pot of boiling water, intense heat for a split second, I cannot recall the muscle contraction or the "Bblugghh".

Fortunately for me I did not provide the current with an earth.

Across the hand is non lethal. Left hand contact to left foot Earth and right hand contact to right foot Earth are far less lethal than left(or right) hand contact to right(or left) foot earth.
You usually won't provide an Earth through the feet unless your hand contracts and your unfortunate enough to grab hold.

I can't quite tell but it looks like the guy on the pole reached with the left hand whilst standing on the left foot...(un)lucky bugger.
 
  • #24


wolram said:
Yes, i have a (y) shaped scar on one hand as a reminder, and it is VERY difficult to
do any thing (break free) even for 110v.
Edit

It is the circular scar not the (y) shaped one.

im 14 and i got elctricuted while taking a dvd player 2 bits (opened it up put the power in 2 watch it work) i gt 240volts mi friend broke me free

it woz only a few seconds but mi whole arm (left1) shuddered up and down then i was broken free.
 
  • #25


A typical resistance from prods left to right hands is 1 Mohm.

With a current limit of 10 mA the voltage betwen the prods will be 10,000 Volts

= 1000000/100

Power is 10000 x 1/100 = 100 Watts.

10 mA at 1 MV would be 10,000 Watts anyway.

Even if the power was very high you are not going to hang on to the prods for long
 
  • #26


this is not a cut-n-dry subject, and I've recently come across a text on the subject i need to get around to reading, but... there's two basic ways that i know of that electric current can kill you.

one is sending the heart into fibrillation. this is basically a runaway train. the electrical circuitry of the heart itself gets disturbed and it begins beating so fast that pumping efficiency approaches zero and you die. i think the studies done here are actually on dogs and may induce some error in the results, but if you look at a graph of fibrillation vs. frequency, a frequency of around 50 to 60 Hz is ideal for inducing heart fibrillation. very high frequencies for similar currents may have no effect at all. another variable here besides the previously-mentioned variable skin resistance is microshock hazards. this generally only occurs in a hospital setting where someone has an internal probe. only a very small amount of current can cause fibrillation here. i forget the exact numbers, but leakage current on medical devices is only around <20uA. a very small amount of current will kill you if that electrode is in a vein. and the resistance once you get under the skin is only about 500 or so ohms. try not to poke wires in yourself.

and of course the other everyone is familiar with is the electrical burn. sometimes people survive the initial electrocution only to die later from say pneumonia or whatever. that's a pretty good deal of current, though.
 
  • #27


the ampage was 2.5 but i don't know what that means
 

1. What is electrocution and how does it happen?

Electrocution is the severe injury or death caused by electric shock. It occurs when a person comes into contact with an electrical source, and the electricity flows through their body, causing damage to their tissues and organs. This can happen through direct contact with a live wire or indirectly through contact with a conductive object that has become energized.

2. What is the electrocution threshold?

The electrocution threshold is the minimum level of electric current that can cause harm to a human body. It is typically measured in amperes (A) or milliamperes (mA). For most people, the electrocution threshold is around 10 mA, but this can vary depending on factors such as the body's resistance, the duration of exposure, and the path the current takes through the body.

3. What role do watts play in electrocution?

Watts are a unit of power and measure the amount of energy per second that an electrical device uses or produces. In electrocution, watts play a critical role as they determine the severity of the shock and the potential for harm. The higher the wattage, the more energy is flowing through the body, and the more damage it can cause.

4. Can a person survive electrocution?

It is possible for a person to survive electrocution, but it depends on various factors such as the voltage and current involved, the duration of exposure, and the path the current takes through the body. If the shock is severe enough, it can cause permanent damage or even death. However, with prompt medical attention, it is possible to survive electrocution.

5. How can we prevent electrocution accidents?

There are several ways to prevent electrocution accidents, including keeping electrical appliances and cords in good condition, avoiding contact with overhead power lines, and using ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) in areas where water is present. It is also essential to follow safety protocols and to never attempt to touch or handle electrical sources without proper training and protective equipment.

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