A Case of Bad Gas?

Bottom Line: While it is not common, the risk of breathing contaminated air from a scuba tank is a real threat to divers, especially when air fills are done by a source whose reputation is unknown or questionable. Because some contaminants are impossible to detect on your own, technology is required to insure the air you breathe is as fresh as a morning breeze.

The stank seemed so obvious to one diver. This was clearly a case of some bad gas, and all of the warning signs were there: A rickety scuba shack belching a hazy plume of exhaust from a cranky, gas-powered air compressor in a country where standards, testing and inspections for compressed air quality were most likely inconvenient suggestions.

 

His buddy sampled the same suspect air from the equally suspicious aluminum 80 tank with a prolonged whiff and declared, “I don’t smell anything.” Great. Now what? Civilization as we knew it was 500 miles away and so were—as is described by PADI—any “reputable scuba air sources” for compressed gas.[1]

 

Here was our problem: How do we know that the gas we are about to breath at depth is free of contaminants? The truth is we can’t know without some technological help. There are several possible impurities in compressed air. Passing the so-called “sniff test” (a nose check for any odor from the tank air) or a "taste test" (a sort of flavor check of your air—there should be none) has important but limited screening values as one of the most insidious contaminants in a scuba cylinder is invisible to all of our senses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

 

Carbon monoxide (CO) [is] an odorless, colorless gas, which can cause sudden illness and death... [It] is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned.[2]

What makes CO so toxic is that it essentially replaces oxygen in the bloodstream at a rate of 240-to-1, and “[t]he net effect is the reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.”[3]

 

According to the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center:

CO is the deadliest of the toxic gases commonly found in compressed air.[4]

An acceptable level of CO at sea level can prove deadly at recreational diving depths because of Dalton’s law of partial pressures.[5] But that begs this question: What is an “acceptable level” of CO? The short answer is not much, simply because our CO tolerance is very low considering the very small amounts we are regularly exposed to.

 

How small, you ask? Well, measurements of CO are in parts per million (ppm), where one molecule of CO is detected among 999,999 molecules of other gases, or 0.0001%. The average global concentration of outdoor CO levels is somewhere between 0.04 ppm and 0.12 ppm (0.000004% to 0.000012%).[6], [7]

 

The Compressed Gas Association, Inc. (CGA) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) established a standard for—believe it or not—air. The standard known as ANSI/CGA G-7.1-2011 requires that the compressed air in scuba tanks have 10 ppm or less of CO, or .001%. Even at recreational diving’s maximum operating depth of 130 feet/40 meters (about 5 bar/ata), the partial pressure of CO (PCO) of 10 ppm would be at an acceptable level of .005%, or equivalent to 50 ppm of CO in surface air.

Table 1 gives examples of scientific research on the effects of CO and the related levels for symptoms that range from a headache and nausea to unconsciousness and eminent death. A contaminated tank containing 800 ppm of CO might not immediately present symptoms at the surface, but at a depth of 99 feet/30 meters (4 bar/ata), the same tank of air could prove deadly within 30 minutes (0.08% x 4 bar/ata = PCO 0.32 bar/ata, or equal to breathing 3,200 ppm [0.32%] of CO in surface air).

PORTABLE SOLUTIONS

Meanwhile, back at that desolate dive destination with that funky tank of gas… What do we do? Luckily, there are solutions available to analyze tanks for CO on the go. Here are a few options that might be worthy of consideration depending on your future dive itinerary. Prices range from $7.95 to $420.00:

DE-OX SAFE Carbon Monoxide Analyzer

DE-OX CO is able to test a tank fill for carbon monoxide content in any breathable gas mix, including air, or it can be connected to a gas or diesel compressor for in-line continuous monitoring.

http://www.temc.it/en/de-ox-safe-analizzatore-di-monossido-di-carbonio/

 

POCKET CO SCUBA

In addition to being a general purpose CO detector, Pocket CO SCUBA has been configured to allow easy detection of extremely low levels of CO in SCUBA tanks, down to 2 ppm.

http://www.detectcarbonmonoxide.com/order-now/pocket-co-scuba/

 

DIVENAV COOTWO

The world’s first dual gas (oxygen and CO) analyzer and data logger. Programmable via smartphone. Compatible with existing My Nitroxbuddy smartphone app.

http://www.divenav.com/products/cootwo

 

CO-PRO™

A one-day use device that detects the presence of CO in breathing air. Tear open the packet and fill included balloon with tank air. If the air is contaminated by CO, the sensor button in the balloon will change color.

http://co-pro.com [At the time of this writing, this website was inactive. Visit the manufacturer's site.]

SENSORCON CO DETECTOR FOR SCUBA TANKS

Kit includes the waterproof Carbon Monoxide Inspector, carrying case, yoke adapter and male and female connectors for sampling air or CO.

http://carbonmonoxide.sensorcon.com/scuba-carbon-monoxide.php

 

OxyCheq Expedition CO Analyzer w/ Alarm

Expedition Carbon Monoxide Analyzer with alarm and carrying case. The alarm will sound when the level of CO reached 10 ppm (+/- 1ppm).

https://www.oxycheq.com/oxycheq-expedition-co-analyzer-w-alarm.html

NUVAIR PRO CO ANALYZER

Fast response compact water resistant container. Range of 0-50 ppm. Alarm goes off at 10 ppm CO (BC flow adapter sold separately.) 

https://www.nuvair.com/store/pro-co-alarm-analyzer.html

DIVENAV monOX DELUXE

Carbon monoxide detector for scuba divers. Smartphone controllable.

Available at Amazon.com

Footnotes

[1] PADI Open Water Diver Manual (2013, p. 191).

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/co/

[3] Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. http://www.jabfm.org/content/11/6/481

[4] http://www.med.navy.mil/sites/nmcphc/Documents/industrial-hygiene/COMPRESSED-BREATHING-AIR.pdf

[5] Discussed in detail in PADI’s Encyclopedia of Recreational Diving (2008, pp. 4-32, 33).

[6] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/ToxProfiles/tp201-c2.pdf

[7] World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe. http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/123059/AQG2ndEd_5_5carbonmonoxide.PDF

This page is provided for informational purposes only. It is solely the opinion of ATA/BAR DIVERS and is provided without compensation, affiliation or consideration of any kind. No endorsement of, or professional experience with, any equipment profiled on this page should be inferred or implied. Amazon Associates links go to support this site.

Effects of Carbon Monoxide in Parts per Million (ppm)

Table 1. Effects of Carbon Monoxide.

Figure 1. De-Ox Safe CO Detector

Figure 2. Pocket CO SCUBA

Figure 3. DiveNav COOTWO

Figure 4. CO-PRO™

Figure 5. Sensorcon SCUBA CO Detector

Figure 6. OxyCheq Expedition

Figure 7. Nuvair Pro CO

Figure 8. DiveNav monOx DELUXE.