Page 2It was recently suggested that the risk was negligible, not enough to warrant divers taking actions - but a member with extensive experience on the subject offered good reason to think the risks are around 3-5%...
The risk of CO poisoning may be much higher than we'd like to admit basically because no one is doing a carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) in all dive fatalities, however if you look at the Dr. Caruso’s UHMS retrospective dive fatality abstract posted earlier 3 percent of the divers whose COHb concentration was checked at death had an anomalous level. Three percent is certainly well above the frequency one would expect for a potentially lethal contaminant that is "barely quantifiable" and far greater than the risk of dying from DCS.
We can also try and assess the frequency of CO contamination in our breathing air from another direction and that is by asking the compressed gas analytical laboratories what their frequency of test failure is for CO at the 10 ppm level. These labs receive thousands of dive air samples a month from fill stations all over the globe so this number would be the best real-time indicator as to the extent of the contamination problem.
This question was posed to the labs by Bob Rossier, an ex-NASA life support systems engineer, in 1998 and 2004 and reported in the DAN Diver Alert magazine. When Lawrence Factor and TRI Laboratories, two of the largest compressed gas laboratories in the USA, were contacted and asked the frequency of CO contamination in dive air alone (fire service compressed air has a CO failure rate about 0.1 %) both labs reported independently in 2004 that the failure rate was 3 to 5 percent, an incredibly high percentage considering the high toxicity of this contaminant and potential for death in the underwater environment. In 1998 these same lab directors were asked the CO failure rate in diver compressed air and reported it was 5 to 8 percent so things have improved somewhat since that time but not by much.
The point is though that if someone told you that there was a 5 percent chance the tank of dive air you might use could contain CO at a concentration above 10 ppm I think you would be hard pressed to call that "barely quantifiable" in fact a rationale person would request that their fill station install a CO monitor or that the individual diver would purchase a personal CO analyzer.
It does not surprise me at all that we are hearing of more and more CO-contaminated tanks plus CO-related injuries and deaths as the awareness of the problem and in-field tank testing has increased 100 fold with the availability personal CO analyzers. In the end the frequency of these CO incidents in the field should reflect the rate of CO contamination identified by the labs testing the compressed air from the same field on a daily basis. Only when a COHb concentration is done in all dive fatalities will we also see the frequency of anomalous COHb levels trend towards that 3 percent level.
In 2009 I spoke with these same lab directors again and they confirmed that nothing had changed since 2004 indicating that we in the dive community still have a 3 to 5 percent chance of receiving a tank of compressed air with CO contamination > 10 ppm. The samples sent to Lawrence Factor and TRI come from all over the world so this is a global dive industry problem but worse in those geographical regions where high ambient temperatures conspire to allow poor compressor installations to overheat and intermittently burn (autoignite) the compressor oil.
If it was reported that that our national blood supply contained HIV or Hep C contamination at a rate of 3 to 5 percent not only would the population be up in arms and demand rigorous testing to eliminate that risk, but I doubt you find to many potential transfusion recipients cavalierly saying this was a negligible risk and that they would rather forgo HIV or Hep C testing and just accept the risk of contracting a potentially lethal disease. Yet sadly in the dive industry that is exactly what we still hear today despite the facts indicating the CO contamination risk is quantifiable in our dive air and runs about 3 to 5 percent.
Sadly, the situation will not change much until more divers take actions, testing tanks, complaining about small readings, leaving boats after larger readings, and voting with their business as well as their reports here on SB. The portable Analox unit can be acquired at EII CO- Portable Carbon Monoxide Checker for as little as $325 including free shipping in the US, higher internationally and is a breeze to use tank after tank, T90 readings in 30 seconds. Turn the dial to field calibrate, blow in it to register a few digits and confirm it works (everyone’s breath contains a few points of CO), and go. Don’t bother with the bump gas offered.