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Human physiology under high pressure: I. Effects of Nitrogen, Carbon dioxide, and Cold


We confirm the finding of Behnke, et al. (1935) that air at 8·6 atm. pressure has a somewhat intoxicating effect on human beings, and that this effect is due to nitrogen. The nitrogen effect reaches its maximum after about 3 min. There was no reduction of manual dexterity in the test used by us, but a considerable effect on performance of arithmetic, and on most practical activities. At 10 atm. these effects were somewhat enhanced, and manual dexterity was lowered in some cases. When helium or hydrogen was substituted for nitrogen there was no intoxication.

3–4% of carbon dioxide at atmospheric pressure caused no deterioration in manual or arithmetical skill, and in the two subjects tested, 6% of carbon dioxide caused no deterioration.

When air containing about 0·4% of carbon dioxide, and therefore with a partial pressure of about 4%, was breathed at 10 atm., there was a marked deterioration in manual dexterity, and a good deal of confusion. When breathing carbon dioxide at partial pressures of 6·6–9·7% at 10. atm., eight subjects lost consciousness in 1–5 min., but some could tolerate partial pressures of over 8% for 5 min. or more. With half an hour's exposure to a partial pressure of 6–7% of carbon dioxide, one subject lost consciousness after 7 min. at 10 atm. pressure, and another nearly did so.

We consider that the percentage of carbon dioxide in air at 10 atm. pressure should be kept below 0·3%. Exposure to high partial pressures of carbon dioxide at 10 atm. does not increase the liability to ‘bends’ or other symptoms due to rapid decompression.

Immersion in water below 40° F. did not enhance the effects of high-pressure air, or of carbon dioxide at atmospheric pressure, but somewhat enhanced those of high pressure and carbon dioxide together.

In certain breathing apparatus the resistance became so great at 10 atm. as to be intolerable.

Few subjects experienced serious trouble during compression, or during or after decompression. But one developed a unilateral pneumothorax.

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G. C. C. Damant (1930). Physiological effects of work in compressed air. Nature, Lond., 126 (2), 606.

J. B. S. Haldane (1924). Über Halluzinationen infolge von Änderungen des Kohlensäuredrucks. Psychol. Forschung, 5, 356.

J. H. Hildebrand , R. R. Sayers & W. P. Yant (1928). Helium in deep diving and caisson working. Nature, Lond., 121, 577.

L. Ubbelohde & T. Svanoe (1919). Z. angew. Chem. 32, 257.

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