The Hazards of SCUBA
Created | Updated Oct 1, 2007
Scuba diving is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Thousands of people each year leave the frozen wastes of the north to play in the inviting tropical waters of many exotic locations, from the islands of the Pacific, to the Caribbean, from Lanzarote to the Red Sea.
The Air You Breathe
Most recreational scuba diving is done using ordinary compressed air, which is pumped into a steel or aluminium tank until it reaches 3000 psi1. It is vital that you, as the diver:
Inspect your tank and the first thing you should notice is a rubber gasket at the point where the air leaves the tank. Ensure it is in good condition and properly greased with silacone grease. Do not use petroleum based grease as it is liable to explode under pressure.
Use only respectable dive shops because a shop that performs poor maintenance on their tanks and compressors is putting you at tremendous risk. If corrosion appears in the tank, you will inhale that iron oxide/aluminium oxide dust, which is not only harmful to your lungs, but it can also cause you to go into a terrible coughing fit at depth, leading to drowning. Poor maintenance of the air compressor can lead to this as well as poorly maintained compressors can introduce oil or carbon monoxide into your air. See Hypoxia, Carbon Monoxide Poisoning and Drowning A817850 The best situation is to own your own tanks, and take them in to get inspected by your local dive shop once a year.
The cleanest, purest air in the world can still kill at depth. This is because of water pressure. For every ten metres (approximately) the diver descends, he experiences another atmosphere of pressure. The air in the scuba tank also experiences this. Gases respond in an odd way to increased pressure - they shrink down to the appropriate ratio. That is, if the diver is at ten metres, he experiences two atmospheres of pressure, the gas has contracted to half its size, and the diver will receive, in effect, twice the amount of oxygen and nitrogen he would receive at the surface for each lung full of air.
Too Much Nitrogen
Nitrogen makes up approximately 78% of normal air. Your blood absorbs a bit of this at normal pressures, then disposes of it as necessary. At depth, your blood will absorb astonishing amounts of it, depending on how deep and how long you dive. This phenomenon is based on Henry's Law, which states that the solubility of gasses increases under increasing pressure. Think of how much carbon dioxide a can of soda holds, and then releases when you release the pressure via the pull tab, and you've got the general idea. You will start to feel a bit light-headed and giddy, then will begin to behave as if you were drunk. This condition is known as 'nitrogen narcosis,' and as its name suggests, can lead to unconsciousness. See Nitrogen NarcosisA810244 If you realize what is going on, or your partner spots it, this is an easy condition to alleviate. Simply ascend to a new depth for few minutes, and the condition should correct itself. Once corrected, it is best to end the dive.
Narcosis is far from the only danger from excess nitrogen. The tissues of the body have still absorbed massive amounts of nitrogen throughout the dive, regardless of whether narcosis has had an effect. As the diver ascends, this gas begins to come out of solution, just as the carbon dioxide expands and escapes when you open a soda can. If the diver ascends too fast, it begins to form bubbles within the blood stream, which collect at the joints. The result is 'decompression sickness' See Decompression Sickness A812747(DCS), more commonly known as 'the bends'. In an effort to alleviate the intense pain at the joints, the victim will curl into a fetal position, bending every joint, which is where the nickname developed. The only treatment for this condition is a long stay in a hyperbaric chamber 2.
The first research on Decompression sickness was done by Dr J S Haldane in 1908 under the auspices of the Royal Navy. Dr Haldane’s research is the basis of all decompression tables today with empirical modifications.
There are also air mixtures with greater concentrations of oxygen, and therefore lower concentrations of nitrogen, which alleviate these dangers. They are produced by mixing in a precise amount of pure oxygen into a tank of normal air. However, these require special equipment and special training, and are not recommended for recreational divers. They are somewhat of a trade-off, providing less danger of DCS and narcosis, but greatly increasing the risks posed by Oxygen poisoning.
Too Much Oxygen
Breathing Oxygen at a partial pressure greater than 2 bars is poisonous. The air we breath contains 20% oxygen, therefore it has a partial pressure of .20 bar at the surface. As the diver descends the partial pressure increases by .20 bar for every ten metres. Therefore by the time a diver reaches a depth of 100 metres on compressed air, he becomes subject to Oxygen Poisoning. Because Oxygen Poisoning in the water is nearly always fatal, it is not a thing to be trifled with, so the maximum depth on compressed air should not even be approached. Besides, as depths of 50 metres, the effects of Nitrogen Narcosis is more likely to be the problem.
During WWII frogmen used to breath pure oxygen using an oxygen re-breather in an enclosed system This allowed them to approach enemy ships in harbour in order to plant mines on their hulls without exhaust bubbles giving away their presence. They carried a small bottle of oxygen, about the same size as a small fire extinguisher. Because the gasses exhaled still contain a substantial amount of oxygen they were circulated through a filter which removed the carbon dioxide and the oxygen was re-breathed. Carbon dioxide poisoning was a real hazard in these circumstances if the filter became saturated with carbon dioxide and ceased to do its job. Because they were breathing pure oxygen, these divers were restricted to a maximum depth of only ten metres.
No Air At All
Divers are not allowed the comfort of believing that things work properly all the time. An air valve can get stuck. A hose can get ruptured. A leak can develop. Or, you may simply lose yourself in the environment, and lose track of your air consumption. Whatever the cause, lack of air is an immediate emergency, and must be dealt with swiftly.
Many divers spare the expense for a 'pony bottle,' or 'spare air.' This is a tiny cylinder3 of compressed air, with a little mouthpiece and a demand regulator, that can be worn hooked to the belts or straps of the your gear. It provides air for just a few minutes, but will allow you to proceed to make a controlled ascent to the surface.
It is highly advisable that you attach a second air regulator, known as an 'octopus,' to your tank. It provides you with a spare in case your primary malfunctions, but, more importantly, it provides your partner with a spare in case his air fails him entirely. Insist that your dive partner has one as well.
Most dive organisations no longer teach a procedure called 'buddy breathing', which allows two divers to share a single regulator, in case of emergencies and the lack of spares. The divers grab on to each other's straps with one hand to keep them from drifting apart. The working regulator's owner takes his regulator in hand, and the other diver places his hand over that. They work in turns; the owner will take two quick breaths, releasing control of the regulator as he begins a slow exhale of the second breath. The other diver will bring the mouthpiece to his mouth and repeat the process. All the while they perform this exercise, the divers are working together to make a slow, controlled ascent. It is a procedure that requires a large amount of concentration, coordination, and trust in each other's personal hygiene.
There was a diver, who shall be nameless, that had false teeth which had to be removed when diving. This made gripping the mouth piece between non-existent teeth rather difficult. To solve the problem, a special plastic device, usually bright orange in colour, could be purchased that fitted on the mouthpiece. This device was first soaked in hot water to soften it. It was then placed on the mouthpiece and the mouthpiece and plastic insert gripped with the gums. This put an imprint of the gums into the plastic which remained in place as it cooled and hardened. enabling the mouthpiece to be retained without difficulty. The look on other divers faces when this was presented to them during buddy breathing practice was a sight to behold.
When all else fails, do an emergency ascent. If the problem occurs early in the dive, or if you haven't descended beyond 15 metres, you probably won't have any difficulties. But if you do, it is still better to deal with the pain of DCS than to drown. If your tank was empty, you'll find that a couple of new breaths appear as you ascend.
The Water Around You
Your mother once prodded you into the bathtub, or sent you to the store in the rain, with the words, 'A little water won't kill you'. Then you took up diving, and you found out different.
Pressure Lecture Part II
Just as the water affects the gases in your tanks, it also affects the gases in you. A benefit to this is that your partner won't see bubbles emanating from both ends of you at once. Offsetting that is the danger to your hearing.
The eardrum is simply a thin membrane stretched across the ear hole. This separates the out ear canal from the inner canal. Changes in air pressure affect the eardrum, and would break it, except for the natural methods of regulating that pressure that are built into the human ear. The eustachian tube runs from the inside of the eardrum to the mouth, right about where the jaws meet. As external air pressure decreases, the air inside the eustachian tube expands, and flows right down the tube and out the mouth. When external pressure increases, air must be taken up into the tubes, which doesn't occur as naturally and easily as it flows out. It occurs in fits and spurts, and creates a sensation referred to as 'popping your ears. The location of the tubes explains why chewing gum during rapid descents above ground is a good way to help equalise the pressure.
Increasing pressure due to diving is an even greater challenge, because the pressure changes are occurring much more rapidly. Luckily, your ears will remind you when it is time to take steps... they'll hurt. Eardrum pressure is regulated the following ways:
Make a slow, controlled descent.
Every ten feet or so, your ears will remind you to 'equalize'. There are several ways to accomplish this, but the easiest, most effective, and silliest looking way is to pinch your nose and blow air into your head, without releasing any out of your mouth. Don't blow too hard, or you'll break your eardrums the other way.
Never dive with sinus problems. Clogged sinuses will block the eustachian tubes. If in doubt, test your equalization capacity before jumping into the water.
As you ascend, the eustachian tube will expel the excess pressure without intervention. However, this means that anytime to ascend a bit and the descend back to your previous level, you'll have to equalize again.
Because of the placement of the eustachian tube, it is quite easy to get air bubbles trapped in your jaw. These will also expand as you ascend. The end result is that, as the post-dive euphoria begins to wear off, you'll notice that your jaws are a little sore, and that your teeth don't fit together like they used to. This condition will pass, and is perfectly normal
One result of external pressure on your internal gases will not pass so easily. This involves the air in your lungs. As you ascend rapidly, the air in your lungs also expands rapidly. If you hold your breath, your lungs will burst. Remember to blow out anytime you are forced to ascend rapidly, and it's best to never hold your breath at any point while diving.
Another possibility is that a bit of air may be squeezed out of your alveoli4 and into your blood. As you continue to ascend, that air bubble will expand. When it becomes as large as the blood vessel it travels in, it will cut off circulation, causing tremendous pain. This condition is known as an 'air embolism'. The only treatment for an embolism is the hyperbaric chamber. Cautious dive practices are the best prevention.
The Motion of the Ocean
The ocean is constantly in motion, as anyone who has ever watched the dance of the sandpipers5 can attest. Currents, waves, riptides - they all have the ability to carry away the incautious diver.
Waves and riptides are not a problem to the diver who manages to acquire a boat. For those who must brave a beach entry, however, they can be quite a problem. Scuba gear tends to make one quite awkward and slow in the shallow waters, and thus a better victim for these sorts of things. Use good judgement when surveying a beach entry. If the surf looks too rough, scrap the dive or find a better spot. If you can handle it, though, it's a good idea to empty your buoyancy compensator of all air. That way, you'll be able to swim under the waves. Stick your regulator in your mouth, and maintain a good grip.
Currents can be a problem, or a boon, depending on how well you plan. If you, or someone in your dive group6 knows the currents at that site, then the dive profile can be planned with a certain entry point, and a certain exit point downstream from that. You will then be required to make minimal effort, as you can allow yourself to be carried along. Sure, they call it a sport, but you really didn't get involved for exercise, did you? This sort of dive is so popular, it has even been given a name: drift diving.
A poorly planned dive can be a nightmare, however, as you find yourself fighting futilely against the current to reach a decent exit point. A beach dive performed in a rocky area can turn it from a nuisance to an emergency. Current information can be obtained from the local dive shop, or you can rely on your powers of observation, if it is a familiar site.
Caves and Wrecks
Divers are, by definition, an adventurous sort, and tend to seek out interesting things while diving. Two of the most adventurous dive types are cave dives and wreck dives. They are also, of course, the most dangerous.
The hazards of diving into a cave or a wrecked vessel are the same. You can find yourself in very tight quarters, with jagged points reaching out to snag your dangling hoses and other accessories. You can kick up silt as you go, completely obscuring your exit and becoming hopelessly lost. It is also worth noting that, when you start getting deep into caves or wrecks, the option of emergency ascent is closed to you.
Because of the inherent dangers, caves and wrecks should only be explored by experienced divers who have received special instruction. The instruction will teach you how to bring along some line, and mark your path as you go, so you won't become lost. It'll teach you to bring along extra air rigs, so emergency equipment will be available, to help compensate for the unavailability of an emergency ascent. It'll teach you how to avoid protrusions, and how to adjust your equipment to reduce the chance of snags. It'll also teach you how to control your kicks in order to reduce the amount of silt you disturb.
Sharks are the most commonly imagined and dreaded sea creature. Sure, they might eat you, but don't count on it. Sharks tend to avoid scuba divers as they are big, and sharks hate to work for a meal. They blow bubbles, and that really annoys them and since sound travels so much better in liquids, the sound of your exhaust is loud. You're not going to sneak up on anything, and likewise, a shark will choose not to sneak up on you. Anyway, the hunting patterns of large sharks reveal that surfers are in much greater danger than divers.
The real dangers to divers are difficult to see and identify. Most are not well-known. Many have tricky camouflage techniques. It is important that divers acquaint themselves with the local habitat, and what they can expect, before entering any new environment. Keep a watchful eye, and be sure to point out potential dangers to your partner. An exhaustive list would be incredibly tedious, so here's a random sampler:
Coral will scratch you. It will cut you. If it gets into your skin, it will continue to live and grow inside you. It leaves disfiguring scars. And there's a particularly nasty version called Fire Coral that irritates the skin rather well. Stay off it. Besides, every time you touch the reef, you kill it, and damage the ecosystem as a whole. Wear gloves to protect your hands while you reach for pretty shells.
Urchins are basically balls of spines. Totally inert in the day, but entertaining to see in motion at night. Not entertaining to bump into as it's comparable to hugging a porcupine.
Eels hide in caves and in corals, and you may never see anything of them but the head. They usually won't mess with you, as long as you don't dangle your fingers in front of them. The nasty part is that their teeth bend in at an angle. This means that once you're bitten, you stay bitten. The only way to cure this is to behead the beast, then split his jaw. Don't expect much cooperation from the eel in this endeavour. Keep your dive knife sharp.
Sea snakes are common in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and the Great Barrier Reef. They are far more poisonous than their land-slithering cousins.
Lionfish, scorpionfish, and others of that ilk lie still against the coral reefs, and their colouring blends in remarkably well. You likely won't see them until you're two feet away. They have very sharp fins, sort of like the needles of a sea urchin. Unlike the urchin, however, a puncture also introduces you to a toxin that makes you even more uncomfortable. Hover a few feet above the reef, and you'll be okay.
Rays are passive plankton eaters and absolutely beautiful in their graceful motion. When they're being less attractive, however, they like to bury themselves in the sandy parts. Stepping on their barbed tail is a hazard to divers and beach-goers alike.