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Carbon monoxide and water vapor contamination of compressed breathing air for firefighters and divers.

Compressed breathing air, used in self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) by firefighters and other categories of workers as well as by recreational and commercial divers, is prepared with the aid of high-pressure compressors operating in the range of 5000 psig. There have been reports of unexplained deaths of SCUBA divers and anecdotal accounts of decreased time to exhaustion in firefighters using SCBAs. Compressed breathing air has been found to contain elevated levels of carbon monoxide (CO) and water vapor that are consistent with carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) poisoning and freezing of the user's regulator on the breathing apparatus. The Coburn-Forster-Kane equation (CFK equation) was used to estimate COHb levels at rest and at maximum exercise when exposed to different levels of CO in contaminated breathing air. The results demonstrated that, at maximum exercise, the COHb ranged from 6.0 to 17% with the use of 1 to 4 SCBA cylinders contaminated by 250 ppm CO. Standard operating procedures have been developed at the Montreal Fire Department to minimize the risk of compressed breathing air contamination. Results of the quality analysis/quality control program indicate that implementation of these procedures has improved the quality of the compressed breathing air. Recommendations are made for improvement of the air testing procedures mandated by the Canadian CAN3 180.1-M85 Standard on Compressed Breathing Air and Systems.

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