About 5-10 years ago (can't remember when exactly), my father asked me to unplug a lawn mower from an ungrounded power outlet with no sunken part (the kind which had been outlawed by the EU for a few years by then). The outlet was in a corner, somewhat inaccessible due to a computer desk, so I reached over from the side of the desk and outlet (not the front) in a really clumsy way and tried to unplug it even more clumsily by trying to push my fingers between the plug and the socket. I had my other hand against the nearby wall corner, and all of a sudden I felt a current go through my arms and chest, from the outlet, through my left hand and arm, over to my right hand and arm, and into the wall.

After about a second, I managed to get my fingers from between the plug and the shock stopped. I had only 2 fingers in there, one against each rod, and apart from being impressed by the event and having an afterfeeling in my chest for about 15 minutes afterwards, I didn't notice any harm from the event. I can still work, cycle recreationally for a few hours, exert myself with moving stuff and life live like I'm used to in general. The only thing which might be a consequence is that I sometimes have a minor pain for 10 seconds or so in my chest muscles, but those are sporadically and not related to any particular activities, so I don't know if it is related.

Thing is, I always read and heard that such jolts are lethal. The surge didn't last long, but it passed right through my chest and wasn't mitigated in any way by any kind of barrier. And you often hear about people being killed by testing batteries with their tongue, which are only a fraction of the power of a domestic grid. How did I survive this incident?

In case it's relevant: I was around 16 years, a normally built male with no particular muscles or fat layers, in Belgium.

  • \$\begingroup\$ possible duplicate of How much voltage is "dangerous"? \$\endgroup\$ – Groo Jan 23 '14 at 10:52
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ As the reply below states: We can only speculate and that should be a good enough reason to close the question. There can be no definite answer to this. \$\endgroup\$ – alexan_e Jan 23 '14 at 10:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ You operated a gadget (your body) outside its specifications. When you do so, you void all warranty: it is entirely possible that your body will no longer operate according to specs (that includes not working at all). But you seem to make the mistake (that is also common among naive users of electronic) that such a maltreatment is guaranteed to heave a specific effect (like, in your case killing you). This is in general NOT the case. For all parameters there is generally a very broad margin in which it is not certain what the effect will be, including both death and no harm at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Wouter van Ooijen Jan 23 '14 at 11:12
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @WoutervanOoijen That is definitely an answer and I would gladly up-vote it. \$\endgroup\$ – alexan_e Jan 23 '14 at 11:27
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This question appears to be off-topic because it is not about electronic design. \$\endgroup\$ – Leon Heller Jan 23 '14 at 11:40


And you often hear about people being killed by testing batteries with their tongue,

The chances of such reports being true are close to zero.
I have never heard of such a report that is reputable or traceable to source*.
I cannot think of a mechanism that would make doing this likely to be fatal.
I do not recommend that others do this without advice from their attorney, GP, surgeon, insurer and spouse., BUT, I have 'tested batteries with my tongue' probably hundreds of times in my lifetime at voltages up to 9V / PP3 batteries. The sensation is 'interesting but nothing like the sort of effects I have experienced from more substantial and life threatening electric shocks.

Electrocution by AC mains:

See references at end.

Short: You usually need to pass a certain amount of current through your heart muscle long enough to cause fibrillation of the heart. The trigger point is inexact and will vary widely with circumstance and person. Many people receive severe mains electric shocks and survive with little or no apparent damage. Others receive what may appear lesser shocks and die. Luck and more is involved and not doing it is the best protection.

I have read accident reports of people who died due to a finger to finger shock while unplugging a cord from a mains socket. There was probably a secondary path to earth through the body as well.


Death from electric shock from mains AC at residential voltage levels (say 100 VAC - 240 VAC range) is usually caused by fibrillation of the heart. Current passing through the heart interferes with the natural pace making cycle and the heart goes into an oscillatory mode that does not support pumping. It usually takes a current of look_it_up mA for a period around a certain criticaL heart timing parameter. The details are not as important as is knowing that you want to keep current away from your heart or, if possible, away from your body.

I have had probably dozens of AC mains shocks over a long lifetime - some severe, most less so. I've also managed a hand to hand 1200 VDC shock (not at all recommended) and one RF kick from a 100W + voice triggered transmitter ("hey - look, the aerial is disconn ... AGH!!!") I've made an increasing habit of trying REALLY hard to avoid mains shocks and I can't now remember the last time I had one. The odd very high impedance tickle is known to happen from time to time - but as these are a step on the path to too much current they too are avoided.

Ground fault interrupters / GFI = Earth leak circuit breakers / ELCB are designed to detect leakage of current from a circuit to ground and to then terminate the power supply in less time than the critical period. Say around 10 mS from memory. I purposefully tripped an ELCB with my body long ago to see what it felt like. Back of hand contact as below. The shock was substantial and painful even though it lasted only for a few mS.

A major problem with electric shock is that the body's muscles tend to contract under current frow and the victim may grip the live item and not be able to release their grip. This effect can occur at as low s 12V DC under "ideal" conditions. (Such as eg standing in salt water holding a metal fish spear and a LED lantern powered by 12V and mounted on hand held metal pole. A friend did this and a fault caused a return path via the fish spear and water and their legs and they report having their hands clamped on the spear and being unable o release it. ) DC is worse than AC for this but AC can be every bit as bad as is requried to be fatal.

If you ever MUST touch something which may be "live" then I've seen it recommended that the back of the hand or fingers be used so that if the muscles contract the limb will contract away from the conductor and will; not instead grasp it. This is in fact the precaution that I have taken personally for many years but see your attorney surgeon etc as above and take this as comment and not advice.

Electric shock - OSU

Hyperphysics page - Electric Shock

Wikipedia Ventricular fibrillation

Wikipedia - Electric shock - magnitude says:

The minimum current a human can feel depends on the current type (AC or DC) and frequency.

A person can feel at least 1 mA (rms) of AC at 60 Hz, while at least 5 mA for DC.

At around 10 milliamperes, AC current passing through the arm of a 68 kg (150 lb) human can cause powerful muscle contractions; the victim is unable to voluntarily control muscles and cannot release an electrified object.[3] This is known as the "let go threshold" and is a criterion for shock hazard in electrical regulations.

The current may, if it is high enough, cause tissue damage or fibrillation which leads to cardiac arrest;
more than 30 mA[4] of AC (rms, 60 Hz) or 300 – 500 mA of DC can cause fibrillation.[5][6]

A sustained electric shock from AC at 120 V, 60 Hz is an especially dangerous source of ventricular fibrillation because it usually exceeds the let-go threshold, while not delivering enough initial energy to propel the person away from the source.
However, the potential seriousness of the shock depends on paths through the body that the currents take.[5] If the voltage is less than 200 V, then the human skin, more precisely the stratum corneum, is the main contributor to the impedance of the body in the case of a macroshock—the passing of current between two contact points on the skin. The characteristics of the skin are non-linear however.
If the voltage is above 450–600 V, then dielectric breakdown of the skin occurs.[7]
The protection offered by the skin is lowered by perspiration, and this is accelerated if electricity causes muscles to contract above the let-go threshold for a sustained period of time.[5]

If an electrical circuit is established by electrodes introduced in the body, bypassing the skin, then the potential for lethality is much higher if a circuit through the heart is established.
This is known as a microshock. Currents of only 10 µA can be sufficient to cause fibrillation in this case.

Added - March 2016.

  • A reader mentioned a report of a man being killed using a multimeter on an Ohms range and pushing the probe tips through his skin into his body so the current flowed through his core resistance of (it says) around 100 Ohms.

It is essentially certain that this account is fabricated
(and most "Darwin award" stories are. I'd be genuinely pleased to know of a reputable link to the original claimed report of ant reputable report where this happened.

Note that it is substantially different to connect to a 9V powered Ohm meter than to directly contact a 9V battery's terminals.
Battery across the tongue - my assessment above stands.
Battery hand to hand with probes/contacts pushed through skin into body core !!! - Ouch! - I'd not recommend it ir do it purposefully. Death may be possible, but seems unlikely. 12V across chest near heart using sharp tipped probes HAS caused death. (Reference not to hand). However ....

An Ohm meter even on a low Ohms range is designed to provide a voltage such that at zero Ohms external load the meter is just delivered full current.

An example of a Simpson 260 meter as claimed to be used by the cited report.
There are a range of model 260 Simpson meters but all seem to be 20,000 Ohms per volt meters meaning it needs I = V /R = 1V/ 20,000 Ohm = 50 uA of current to achieve full scale deflection. The original 1930's model had a 50 uA movement and all others since also seem to have had. This is typical of this class and age of meter.

While the designers MAY arrange for 100 uA or 1 mA of full scale current to flow on low Ohms with probes shorted, the odds of it being designed to deliver 100 MA or even 10 mA in such conditions is minimal.

Questionable 1999 Darwin Award report

Simpson model 260 multimeter as reported to have been used:

Original 1930's model 260 - even this had a 50 uA movement.

260 series 2

Simpson 260.com

260 9SP

260 AFP-xx

260 SR



Added 2020:

This chart (source shown on right hand margin of image) shows combinations of time-current which may cause various effects, ranging from perception through death.
I'd err on the low side when deciding what might be harmful.

Note that (Ventricular) fibrillation usually kills if not reverted promptly.
The orange AC4-1 zone suggests a 5% to 50% chance of fibrillation.
The suggested boundary conditions for potentially lethal AC4-1 include

  • 50 mA for 1 second, or

  • 100 mA for 500 ms, or

  • 200 mA for 250 ms, or

  • 500 mA for 50 mS.

The lowest current suggested to possibly cause death is about 30 mA (for > 5s).

Aim for lower or none of any of these examples.

enter image description here

| improve this answer | |
  • \$\begingroup\$ A Navy sailor did kill himself, by measuring his internal resistance of 100 Ohm. There was noone else in his room for a few minutes, so a current of 90mA, produced by the 9V PP3 battery inside his multimeter, was enough to take his life. darwinawards.com/darwin/darwin1999-50.html If your tongue and lips are severed, a 9V battery might kill you. Stop boasting about that, and please correct your post as fast as possible. I flagged it because it can take lifes. \$\endgroup\$ – user2987828 Mar 15 '16 at 14:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2987828 I'll add a reference to the Darwin award report that appears to be the original source of that tale. If you manage to find a better spurce I'd be most pleased to know of it | It APPEARS that that report is fabricated - but it may not be. One comment by someone who says they heard the tale in a training course is that the probes were inserted into the mans thumbs purposefully to access his core resistance. Brave, strong & stupid it seems. | HOWEVER my response related to applying a battery to the tongue, which provide a completely different current path, which excludes the .... \$\endgroup\$ – Russell McMahon Mar 17 '16 at 6:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ ... heart (in all people I'm aware of :-) ). Hand to hand conduction was not being discussed and poses a quite different mode. Even then it would be extremely unlikely to cause death. (Not impossible). | If you reread my answer you will hopefully realise that it is a good answer overall and does constitute "boasting" [tm] but is an account of reality. | In giving advice I ALWAYS err on the side of safety and I'm happy that the warnings I've given in this case - viz "I do not recommend that others do this without advice from their attorney, GP, surgeon, insurer and spouse." would be .... \$\endgroup\$ – Russell McMahon Mar 17 '16 at 6:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ ... completely clear to any reasonable person.. \$\endgroup\$ – Russell McMahon Mar 17 '16 at 6:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ You might at least want to add that the tongue and the hand touching the battery should not be severed. \$\endgroup\$ – user2987828 Mar 21 '16 at 9:17

We can only speculate.

I had my other hand against the nearby wall corner,

Walls are usually not that conductive, it is likely that this was an important factor.

I had only 2 fingers in there, one against each rod

If you had a separate finger against each pin of the plug, I'd expect the majority of the current to flow through your hand. From the fact you don't report your fingers having been reduced to a burned mess, I deduce you didn't make good contact with the pins. Perhaps you only made contact with a neutral, which is bonded to earth nearby, so any potential on this conductor would be low.

Also note that "the resistance of dry skin is usually between 1,000-100,000 Ohms." so to pass through your skin twice the 230V might only pass a current of 1.15 mA.

I suspect that your skin resistance was probably lower but you were saved by the relatively non-conductive wall.

And "While any amount of current over 10 milliamps (0.01 amp) is capable of producing painful to severe shock, currents between 100 and 200 mA (0.1 to 0.2 amp) are lethal. Currents above 200 milliamps (0.2 amp), while producing severe burns and unconsciousness, do not usually cause death if the victim is given immediate attention."



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It is current that kills or paralyzes a human, not voltage. The voltage is applied over your body, which acts as a resistor, and the current will be limited by the total resistance created between the positive and negative potentials in that circuit. In your case, your other hand was not touching the wall, which is not very conductive, meaning that its relatively large resistance limited the total current over your body.

A current of 30mA for more than a minute would likely result in respiratory paralysis. For larger currents, you need even shorter time before damage to your organism occurs. Given the fact that you were holding a wall, I am pretty sure that, while uncomfortable, the current was too low to induce any damage.

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