iPhone 5 user gets electrocuted -- plausibility?

This is a piece of news that has been doing the rounds for a few days.

Summing up: A young lady in western China apparently died, electrocuted, when she answered her iPhone 5 which was charging at that precise moment.

Links:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/15/us-apple-china-idUSBRE96E08P20130715

http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1282777/apple-investigate-reported-iphone-5-shock-death

What is the likelihood of something like that happening?

Do you think it might be tied to the use of non-standard, third-part loaders/accessories?

Apart from that, poor woman … :-/

Snopes says false.

I tried to look this up and found scant information. I would think it much more likely that she suddenly dies of other causes while she was answering the phone. Given how often most use the phone, there must be thousands of people who die every year within seconds of doing something on it.

Yeah, although I see that the article was last updated in december 2012 (with most material dating from 2004), and that the claim they declare false is “Using cell phones while they are being recharged poses a general and serious danger of electrocution.” (emphasis mine).

Of course I understand that there is no general risk of electrocution while using a recharging cell phone – however, is there a plausible set of (probably unusual) circumstances under which that might happen?

I was thinking that perhaps the use of third-party accessories of dubious provenance might have something to do with it.

That was my thought - Dollar-store quality charger, plus China uses 220V making things even more interesting.

Hmm, that is highly unlikely.

The charger unit only puts out a low voltage to charge up the phone. The only way that a high enough voltage could come in contact is if the charger unit went short circuit, and this would rapidly damage the phone, like in milliseconds. Something would give, such as smoke or wires would rapidly burn out.

Charger units are designed in such a way that the output is electrically independent of the input, even a badly made one is not likely to give the user a shock - I am struggling to imagine a way it could happen.

You have clearly never looked inside a cheap Chinese iPhone charger. The components are crammed into a tiny space, and they are often very poorly assembled. I could easily see a primary to secondary short happening. I could even believe a short that would let the unit function, and still create a shock hazard

This is the point where the Mythbusters decide to just replicate the result, and pile more C4 into the truck.

Well, sumbitch. Apparently Reuters and Apple are both taking the report seriously.

I thought perhaps she had a counterfeit iPhone, but the articles I’m finding quote the sister as saying that the phone was purchased from an Apple store (although there are even counterfeit Apple stores) and the charger was the original one.

That’s the same article as in the first link in the OP.

I need more coffee, clearly. Sorry!

Does the iPhone have any external metal parts? Otherwise, I can’t see how it could happen (well, unless the phone was soaked in sea water, or had its cover removed, or something like that).

Yes, the antenna is metal, and it extends around the entire outside of the case.

Exactly. Here is a teardown video of some fake chargers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wi-b9k-0KfE

The mains side is separated by less than 1mm from the USB socket metal part. A surge or a failed solder joint is enough to feed mains voltage to the USB side.

I could easily see a primary to secondary short which would result in 220V delivered to the phone. I cannot see how that phone remains functional at that point. It’s just barely conceivable that hot could be shorted to the charging cord ground, which might electrify the aluminum shell of the iPhone 5? But that should also be feeding 220v backwards into the phone’s circuitry resulting in a pop and a flash and some smoke and maybe fire.

What am I missing?

The secondary side of the circuit is supposed to be completely electrically isolated from the primary. If there is a short from the hot side of the primary to the secondary, it’s conceivable that all it would do is “float” the secondary at 110 (or 220) volts with respect to ground. Unlikely, but not impossible.

If they’re trying to scam Apple out of some settlement, they should have claimed the battery caught fire and/or exploded. That’s far more believable.

I’d file this story under, “stranger things have happened, I guess”, and wait for the official word from Apple’s investigation. Who knows.

As a data point - Feeding 12V into a phone expecting 5V, with power and ground reversed, does, in fact, result in a popping sound and smoke. Sadly, I don’t recall if there was a flash of light. There was no fire.

I got to do some really fun extra things at my old job, occasionally… :slight_smile:

By the way, everyone: There’s a separate nearby thread on this subject, which questions whether that victim really was electrocuted, or might possibly have died of some other cause at just the inopportune moment. The question under discussion there is: Can an autopsy detect if somebody died of electrocution?