Burns and electrocution risk increased with generic phone chargers, says review

A recent case report in the Annals of Emergency Medicine revealed the potential risk of serious burns and electrocution with the use of generic phone chargers compared to branded ones, as shown by several analyses.

Generic phone charger escalates risk of burn, electrocution. Image Credit: Annals of Emergency Medicine
Generic phone charger escalates risk of burn, electrocution. Image Credit: Annals of Emergency Medicine

Mobile devices are being increasingly used by adolescents and teenagers, and the frequency of their use throughout the day is also high. However, Carissa Bunke, a pediatrician who is lead author of the current study, says, “Teens and adolescents are particularly at risk of injury due to their frequent mobile device use. They should be advised to not sleep with their phones or mobile devices charging in bed and avoid leaving the charger plugged in when it is not connected to a phone.”

Among the patients whose cases were cited in the analysis is a patient who was electrocuted so strongly as to be tossed off his bed. Another was of a 19-year-old girl who was wearing a chain necklace while in bed. She experienced an acute burning pain around her neck, and was taken to hospital where it was determined that she had suffered a second-degree burn all the way around the neck. The injury was likely caused by the charger under her pillow, which was connected to the electrical outlet, and probably came into contact with the necklace at some point, transmitting a strong electric current.

Image Credit: DreamStockP / Shutterstock
Image Credit: DreamStockP / Shutterstock

Many young people and other users do charge these devices at night, and this is more often the case when they are being used in bed. This is a dangerous practice due to the constant risk of electric current leakage from the charging cable, especially with low-cost equipment available from manufacturers of generic chargers.

Several companies dealing with phone chargers have looked into generic charger quality vs Apple branded chargers. In most cases, basic electrical safety tests were failed by the generic devices. This makes them a likely cause of electrical injury, even when the voltage is low, because of the high current flow. The resulting injury can be severe, according to Dr. Bunke.

In most cases, the burn causes pain of sufficient severity to need medication, and follow up will be required at primary or secondary level, that is, at a burn center. In most instances, the patient presenting with electric shock injury must be tested for heartbeat irregularities, or arrhythmias, due to disturbances of electrical conduction. In the worst cases, deep burns may occur which require skin grafts to cover the wound, and some patients come in with serious damage over a wide area. In such cases, the complications are many, including rhabdomyolysis, the breakdown of muscle proteins due to severe injury; breathing difficulty due to airway damage, or injuries to the heart and related organs.

In the current analysis, one study carried out under UK-based Electrical Safety First tested 64 generic devices. The electric strength test is a basic test for electrical devices, intended to determine whether the insulation prevents current flow outside the internal wire. Shockingly, 58% of the chargers tested failed it, with rapidly increasing current flow in an uncontrolled manner through the insulation. This shows that the insulation barrier provided in these chargers was inadequate to contain the electrical current.

Another study also mentioned in the present review showed that of 400 generic chargers marketed as iPhone chargers, only 1% (n=3) passed the electrical strength test. In fact, 22 of these chargers broke down at the onset of the testing process.

The best way to remain safe is to educate adolescents and families about how to use chargers safely. One excellent tip is to disconnect chargers when not in actual use. Moreover, it is strongly recommended that mobile devices not be used when they are connected to a plugged-in charger, especially if the charger is generic. This can help prevent injury in case of current leakage from a faulty charger.

Journal reference:

Circumferential Partial-Thickness Burn Caused by Mobile Telephone Charger: A Case Report
Bunke, Carissa et al., Annals of Emergency Medicine, https://www.annemergmed.com/article/S0196-0644(19)30438-X/fulltext

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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