Compressed breathing air – the potential for evil from within.

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Compressed breathing air – the potential for evil from within.

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Title: Compressed breathing air – the potential for evil from within.
Author: Millar, IL; Mouldey, PG
Abstract: Human underwater activities rely on an adequate supply of breathable compressed gas, usually air, free from contaminants that could cause incapacitation underwater or post-dive or longer-term health effects. Potentially fatal but well-known hazards are hypoxia secondary to steel cylinder corrosion and carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning due to contaminated intake air. Another phenomenon may be behind some previously unexplained episodes of underwater incapacitation and perhaps death: low-level CO poisoning and/or the effects of gaseous contaminants generated within the compressor, including toluene and other volatile compounds. Many low molecular weight volatile contaminants are anaesthetic and will be potentiated by pressure and nitrogen narcosis. In sub-anaesthetic doses, impaired judgement, lowered seizure threshold and sensitisation of the heart to arrhythmias may occur. Toxic compounds can be volatilised from some compressor oils, especially mineral oils, in overheated compressors, or be created de novo under certain combinations of temperature, humidity and pressure, perhaps catalysed by metal traces from compressor wear and tear. Most volatiles can be removed by activated carbon filtration but many filters are undersized and may overload in hot, moist conditions and with short dwell times. A compressor that passes normal testing could contaminate one or more cylinders after heating up and then return to producing clean air as the filters dry and the systems cool. The scope of this problem is very unclear as air quality is tested infrequently and often inadequately, even after fatalities. More research is needed as well as better education regarding the safe operation and limitations of high-pressure breathing air compressors.
Description: Journal of the South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society and the European Underwater and Baromedical Society.
URI: http://archive.rubicon-foundation.org/7964
Date: 2008

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