Horrifying news reports suggest that an iPhone electrocuted a Chinese woman—though it's very unclear if that happened at all and if the rest of the iPhone-owning public should worry about death by smartphone electrocution. The details from various media reports are murky, making it hard to reach any firm conclusions about the dangers of iPhones. It's unclear what model of Apple's popular cell phone the victim, Ma Ailun, used, or if it even came from a legitimate Apple retailer or China's gray market. Her family insists that she used genuine Apple parts and that the phone was under warranty still. Apple is investigating the situation. Given how little we know about the incident, however, here are some possible ways she might have put herself in contact with a deadly electronic charge.
Did She Have Counterfeit Charger? The Wall Street Journal suggests she could have had an uncertified power charger, which may have contributed to the problem. In May, the Chinese Consumer Association warned of a "flood" of uncertified chargers hitting the market that could turn an iPhone into a "pocket grenade." Counterfeit chargers, in general, present a safety hazard because they don't have to meet safety standards, according to a software engineer who tested dozens of phone chargers. While the family insists Ma Ailun had a genuine iPhone, the phone charger might have come from elsewhere. Third-party chargers, particularly, can get too hot, which may also have contributed to the electrocution.
Was She in the Bathtub? The family said she had left the bath to answer the phone. Generally, your body has enough resistance such that an iPhone charger, which has a current of 1 amp and also a voltage of 5 volts, will not electrocute a person. But, as Mythbusters showed, a bath lowers a person's resistance and can indeed zap a person. The lethal amount of electricity is 7 milliamps for three seconds, which, depending on the electronic and the consistency of the bath—salts increase the water's conductivity a ton—can kill a person. Ma Ailun, however, had gotten out of the bath. She would have had to be soaking-wet to get electrocuted. Also, more modern ground-fault circuit interrupter outlets should protect from this sort of thing.
Is There Faulty Wiring in the House? It's possible that this had little to do with the iPhone, but more the wiring in the house, which could have caused a short circuit. It's also possible that some transient voltage from high-voltage wires nearby could have cause the shock. A Yahoo news post, though, says that's highly unlikely.
As you can see, the likelihood of electrocution by iPhone is very, very low. It takes a lot of very particular circumstances that unfortunately transpired for Ma Ailun, which probably is why this is the first news report of this ever happening. iPhones have spontaneously exploded before, but death by iPhone electrocution is a first.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.