News & Politics » Feature

This Sidewalk Could Kill Your Dog

New York and Boston have gone to great lengths to eliminate "stray voltage," a phenomenon responsible for death and injury to both animals and people. Though Chicago's seen at least three such incidents, no similar effort is under way.



The large orange X on the sidewalk half a block from my apartment marks the spot where my dog nearly died three months ago. It was the first Sunday in March, about eight o'clock in the evening. It had rained all day. I was walking Faustus, a rescued 45-pound chow mix, down Addison just east of Broadway, the same block we'd walked twice a day for close to four years. We were almost home, but as we passed a street lamp his back legs suddenly gave out. He began howling. In a few seconds the howls became screams. He fell on his side, legs spasming, his head lashing from side to side.

At first I thought he'd stepped on a nail or piece of glass, but I didn't see any blood. When I tried to grab one of his hind legs to inspect it, Faustus bit my hand so hard he drew blood. As he continued to scream and thrash about I stood paralyzed, stupidly asking over and over, "What's the matter, honey?" The screams abruptly stopped about 30 seconds later, and his legs stiffened with the grotesque crackling sound of cartoon bones snapping.

A few people gathered around as I tried to feel for a heartbeat. A woman flipped open her cell phone and stepped a few feet away. "What do I do?" I asked strangers. The only thought in my head was, Who takes away dead dogs? The police? An ambulance?

Perhaps a minute passed before Faustus started screaming and thrashing again. I tried to pet him reassuringly while he tried to bite hunks out of my leg. He bit clean through his leash and began frothing at the mouth. His eyes bulged like eyes on a ghoulish Halloween mask. As he started biting into his left front leg, he passed out again. I pried his leg from his jaws.

The woman with the cell phone stepped up and handed it to me. An emergency vet was on the line. "It sounds like he's having a seizure," the vet said. "Has he had seizures before?"

"No," I said, as Faustus began another round of screaming. "That sounds like a seizure?"

"Yes. How old is he?"

"I'm not sure; he was a stray. Probably five or six."

"OK. It's rare a dog that old would start having seizures. But just let him be until it passes. And make sure you hang on to him when it's over because he'll be very disoriented and start wandering away. We really need to see him." She told me the address of the clinic three times, and each time I repeated it aloud hoping someone would remember it. I was pretty sure I couldn't.

A dark-haired woman in some sort of medical uniform was bending over me. She'd been driving an ambulance down Addison when someone flagged her. Faustus was howling again, but with less intensity than before. The froth from his mouth was turning red--he must have bitten his tongue. He lay calm for a moment, and the ambulance driver tore a thin strip from a terry-cloth towel and tied his jaws closed. Then she asked a skinny guy from her ambulance to bring over a sheet. She said we'd pick Faustus up, dump him on the sheet, and put him in the back of my car. Except I didn't have a car.

"I'll bring my car around," a guy holding groceries said. He headed down the block while the rest of us stood watching my dog writhe on the sidewalk. The ambulance driver and I tried to position ourselves to pick him up, but didn't have much room to maneuver. A large road construction sign was lashed to the lamppost and its metal legs, which Faustus had fallen right beside, covered half the sidewalk's width.

The grocery man pulled his car around and the ambulance driver and I bent down to pick up Faustus. Finally I shoved my hand under his left shoulder. As my finger touched the wet sidewalk underneath him, I felt an electric shock shoot up my arm, like I'd just stuck my finger in a socket. Faustus had been lying in a live current for ten full minutes.

A few weeks after Faustus's gruesome evening, a chow-collie mix named Barkis was electrocuted on a sidewalk in Brooklyn. Like the Addison sidewalk near my apartment, the concrete under Barkis's feet was wet and salty. According to a news report, Barkis "went into a fury so violent--eyes flaring, teeth gnashing--that [the owner] was afraid his dog would attack him." Beneath the sidewalk was an exposed wire carrying 70 volts of electricity intended for a street lamp that had been removed in 1999.

I've since found reports of about a dozen stray-voltage incidents in the last two years, mostly in New York and Boston. Usually the problem occurs when frayed underground wires come in direct contact with a metal plate or manhole cover, but sometimes wet concrete itself becomes electrified. Typically rubber-soled shoes insulate people from the shock, but not always. In January 2004 a graduate student in New York City named Jodie Lane was walking her two dogs through the East Village when the animals became distressed. She tried to help them, stepped on the metal cover of a utility box, and was killed; her dogs survived.

"This phenomenon is not mysterious," says Allen Taflove, a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University who has studied the hazards of electricity carried by high-voltage transmission lines. "The electrical infrastructure gets old, and insulation around wires degrades. Some of the wires might have been buried decades ago." He says moisture and salt contribute to the deterioration and help conduct underground currents to the surface. "The wire is usually cased inside a metal conduit. During a storm water may leak into the conduit and travel along the wire. At some point the water may come in contact with a part of the wire where the insulation has deteriorated. The water conducts the electricity from the wire to the conduit and then to whatever is saturated outside the conduit." Cracks on the surface can carry the current, he says, but if the pavement is thoroughly saturated, they aren't always necessary. "It turns out that concrete is not always an insulator. Concrete can be a conductor itself, depending on its composition."

One month after Jodie Lane died a yellow Labrador named Oscar was electrocuted on a wet Boston sidewalk after stepping into 100 stray volts generated by abandoned wires leading to a demolished building. The incident got major news coverage, and a month later the city's electrical company, NStar, took out full-page ads in the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe announcing a plan to begin inspecting its 30,000 manhole enclosures and testing for electrified grates. It also proposed increased penalties for construction crews that fail to report work done near, or damage caused to, underground cables. NStar had discovered that another dog had been shocked in Boston's Chinatown after a crew tried to repair a wire it damaged while digging up a street by wrapping it in police caution tape.

The plan was carried out, but a year later, in March 2005, a boxer named Cassius was shocked and killed after stepping on a muddy spot where a street lamp had once stood. The following day Boston's mayor announced the formation of a joint task force between the city and NStar to devise a plan to address the problem of stray voltage. Over the next four months city officials inspected 93,000 streetlights, pull-box covers, and controllers, 6,500 traffic poles and boxes, and 1,359 fireboxes, finding and repairing 62 sources of stray voltage. NStar inspected 11,000 pieces of its infrastructure, finding and repairing 3 sources of stray voltage.

In accordance with the task force's recommendations, city and NStar workers began reviewing historical records of the city's electrical infrastructure in hopes of identifying more forgotten cables. They adopted a policy to inspect at least one-third of the city's entire electrical infrastructure every year and began replacing metal streetlight covers with nonconductive material and installing plastic insulation in electrical boxes.

By January of this year two-thirds of Boston's electrical boxes had been fitted with plastic plates. Then on January 10 a Labrador mix named Killian was electrocuted when he stepped on a round metal plate covering a box on a busy street corner--an insulator hadn't been installed yet. More troublingly, the very spot where Killian died had been inspected the previous year and declared safe. So in February NStar began testing a brand-new technology: mobile stray voltage detection. The system mounts on the back of a truck and can scan electrical field strengths up to 25 feet away while passing at 15 miles per hour. Two live video feeds and a GPS pinpoint locations where the field strength spikes.

In New York, Lane's 2004 death caused community uproar. A month after the incident, city-council member Margarita Lopez introduced legislation requiring Con Ed to inspect all its manholes and service boxes every year. Then in the middle of March two more dogs were shocked on a wet East Village sidewalk a few blocks from where Lane had died. The dogs hadn't stepped on anything metal: a 70-year-old wire underneath the pavement had frayed, touched the conduit, and electrified the concrete.

By September Lopez's legislation had passed. Con Ed was now required to make annual inspections of its electrical infrastructure and to file written reports with the city council, the department of transportation, and the New York Public Service Commission. The law also required the department of transportation to conduct at least 250 random tests of Con Ed's equipment each year. In its first round of inspections, from December 2004 to November 2005, Con Ed tested 728,789 pieces of equipment and found 1,214 sources of stray voltage. Still, in February of this year four pedestrians were shocked, and two were hospitalized, after stepping on an electrified service-box cover in the street near Times Square.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of stray voltage is that its erratic nature makes detection difficult, no matter how much testing is done. "If a truck's vibration moves water into contact with a frayed bit of wire, then you can have stray voltage," says Taflove. "But another vibration from a bus could move that water away from the exposed wire, and the stray voltage would disappear." About a week before Faustus stepped on that fateful spot on Addison, a nine-year-old boy in Harlem stepped on a metal plate on the street and received such a strong shock he was hospitalized. When Con Ed came to check out the site, it found no evidence of stray voltage.

We loaded Faustus into the backseat of the grocery man's car. The cell-phone lady got into the passenger seat, and I slid in beside my dog. Within a minute he'd perked up a bit. His back legs didn't seem to work, but he could hold himself up with his front legs. His ears stood up. He watched things going by out the window. By the time we got to the clinic he was able to walk unsteadily from the car. He didn't appear to be in pain or disoriented--he looked alert and almost happy.

The vet thought it was either idiopathic epilepsy or electric shock. "If it's epilepsy, would I have felt a current on the sidewalk?" I asked. He said no and noted that he had just read something about a dog being zapped on a New York City sidewalk. He wanted to take some X-rays, so I headed back to the waiting room, where the grocery man, whose name was Jeff, and the cell-phone lady, whose name was Lara, were still waiting. We made small talk, mostly about my dog. "He's young," Jeff said. "He's got three or four more electrocutions in him."

Half an hour later, the vet called me back in. The X-rays showed no damage to internal organs, he said, but the real danger was pulmonary edema--fluid and swelling in the lungs--which can be deadly and typically develops in the first 18 to 24 hours after an electric shock. He wanted to keep Faustus overnight for observation. Jeff and Lara drove me home.

Back in my apartment alone, the sight of Faustus's dirt-and-spit encrusted teddy bear lying unattended on the living room rug put a lump in my throat. My chest felt like it was caving in. I put the toy in the closet and tried to go to sleep, but I couldn't get the image of Faustus going stiff and motionless out of my head.

The next morning I drove a friend's car to the emergency vet, went into an exam room, and found a 90-year-old replica of my dog. He could barely walk or hold his head up. He didn't seem to know who I was. The vet said that no pulmonary edema had developed, but I should take him to his regular vet and have him hospitalized for the day. I thanked him and turned to leave but Faustus, for the first time since I got him, didn't follow me out of the room.

I got him home by eight o'clock, an hour before my regular vet's office opened. Faustus tried to climb the stairs of my third-floor walk-up but fell over on the second step. I carried him up like he was dead. Once inside my apartment he stumbled to his favorite corner of my bedroom and crashed sideways onto the floor. I brought in his teddy bear and placed it in front of his nose. He didn't move. I made happy voices. He didn't look up. I lay beside him and stroked his thick black fur. His tail didn't budge. I lay there and ran my hand along his side for ten minutes or so. Then he shuddered, stiffly stood up, walked into another room, and fell over. I went into the kitchen and cried until it was time to take him to the animal hospital.

When I picked him up that evening he hadn't improved at all. "Good news," Dr. Wallis said. "No pulmonary edema. So we're out of the woods."

"But what about the rest of him?" I asked.

"Well, I've never had an electrocution case," he said, "and neither have any of the other doctors here. Based on the literature and case studies, the prognosis is guarded to poor. But those are mostly cases involving cats chewing through electrical cords in the house. So with your dog, I don't know. The bottom line is, either neurons regenerate or they don't."

The next morning I called my alderman's office and explained what had happened. "Oh my God!" the staffer shrieked. "I'll send a truck out immediately!" Ten minutes later a crew from the Bureau of Electricity arrived at the spot where Faustus had been injured. They pulled all the wires out of the base of the lamppost. None looked frayed, nor did any of the wires in the lamp itself. I noticed the construction sign secured to the pole had a flashing yellow light mounted on it--could current from that light have run down the sign, through its long metal legs, and onto the wet sidewalk? They couldn't say. Could there be a problem with wires under the sidewalk? They couldn't say.

A week later, at 7 AM, I met a foreman from the Bureau of Electricity at the same spot and asked him about the possibility of faulty wiring under the sidewalk. "Well, concrete doesn't conduct electricity," he said. "That's six inches of concrete there, and this is a very new sidewalk." I suggested we hose down the sidewalk and test it. "That wouldn't satisfy me," he said. "We need to come out here on the next rainy night and test everything." He painted the big orange X on the sidewalk.

Another week later the construction sign disappeared. In the middle of April I got a voice mail from the foreman (who asked not to be identified by name in this story). He'd been off work having some surgery done, but his guys had tested the site during a rainstorm the night before and found no stray voltage. "So it could have been that sign with the light on it," he said. "For your dog's sake, I hope that was it."

So far only two other stray voltage accidents have been reported in Chicago: in January 2004 a dog was electrocuted when it stepped on a metal grate where city inspectors later found a clipped wire touching a utility box. Four years prior, a dog was killed and its owner hospitalized after they stepped on an electrified manhole cover at the intersection of Lincoln, Sheffield, and Wrightwood.

Judy Rader, a spokesperson for ComEd, says that after Jodie Lane's death in New York ComEd did an inventory of its equipment and determined that its system didn't include the type of equipment that caused Lane's electrocution (though she couldn't specify what that equipment was). ComEd did survey a "randomly selected, statistical sample" of 400 metal service pedestals--the green boxes that connect a customer's home to the ComEd infrastructure--and found no instances of stray voltage. "We haven't experienced the same frequency of incidents on our system as they've suffered in Boston and New York," Rader says. "We don't conduct regular testing the way the utilities there do."

Matt Smith, a spokesperson for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, which oversees the Bureau of Electricity, says a citywide inspection of electrical infrastructure is impractical. "When we plow the city streets we travel 9,500 miles. That's the distance from Chicago to Madagascar," he says. "Checking every piece of equipment along all those miles--we don't have the manpower." (According to the Department of Planning and Development Chicago has 3,780 miles of streets. The five boroughs of New York City, where annual comprehensive inspections are required by law, have over 6,000.) Still, Smith says that the department is concerned about stray voltage. "We have crews that go out routinely and check for things like this. We're out there on the street. And when a problem arises, we respond as fast as we can."

No matter how much equipment is checked or how many frayed wires are repaired, Taflove says the danger can never be completely eliminated. "The only solution is to dig everything up and replace anything damaged. But then someday you have to replace that. It's the same with any infrastructure: sewers, anything. It breaks down.

"This isn't one of those cases of someone claiming magnetic fields cause cancer," he continues. "The mechanism is clear. The threat is tabulated in the electrical engineering literature. It doesn't take much current to cause the heart to stop. What's missing is a survey of the streets. That would be tedious and time-consuming. What will it take? Probably the death of a child."

After Faustus came back from the hospital I spent three or four days trying to coax him to go out for his daily walks. I'd open the back door and he'd slowly turn away. I'd make happy voices and call him to the top of the stairs; he'd turn and go back into the apartment. I'd finally carry him down the stairs, taking him for walks that never lasted more than a block, his right front leg giving out every few steps. He spent the rest of his time immobile on the floor.

Then on day five he wouldn't let me pick him up at walk time, preferring to nearly crash headfirst down the stairs. His walks stretched to two, three, four blocks. I made sure neither of us ever stepped on anything metal or wet. Somewhere around day seven, I saw his tail wag. He vomited up four inches of his old leash. On day ten he stumbled only a few times during his walk. On day 17 I joyfully told him to go away when he wouldn't get out from underfoot while I was trying to cook dinner. Within a month he was the same good-natured, overeager, intermittently aggravating dog I'd taken in.

A few weeks ago I inadvertently walked Faustus across the big orange X. He didn't flinch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment