by Reilly Fogarty
Header photo by Stephen Frink, Research conducted at the US Navy Experimental Diving Unit.
You can read Part I of this series here.
The history of oxygen toxicity research serves well to set the stage for the complication and nuance of modern research, but it’s important to recognize that what we are currently working with is a series of compounded hypotheses on the effects of oxygen in the body. They’ve been tested to varying degrees and serve as the basis for compounding theories and practices both medical and academic in nature, but the more we learn about the function of oxygen in the human body, the more we realize what we don’t yet know. The specificity of the mechanisms combined with the concurrent reactions required to make those mechanisms possible fills the pages of more than one textbook, but here’s a real-world look at what we think we know, and what it means for divers.
Most modern theories of oxygen toxicity focus primarily on the function of oxygen free radicals and lipid peroxidation, in a mechanism that mimics inflammatory processes in the body. Oxygen free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS) are ions (atoms or molecules having an unpaired electron in an outer orbital) that are highly reactive. The pairing or loss of the lone electron results in the generation of an additional free radical, leading to a continuous chain of species production. Their initial creation is primarily the result of an oxi-reductive process in the electron transport chain, the result of which is superoxide, hydrogen peroxides, hydroxyl, and water (Chawla, 2001). These free radicals result in lipid peroxidations (a type of oxidative lipid degradation) in cell membranes, damage to cellular enzymes and interference with nucleic acid and protein synthesis. Exposure to high partial pressures of oxygen increase free radical production and may result in damage to the pulmonary epithelium, intra-alveolar edema, interstitial thickening and several other conditions (Cooper, 2019).
The general mechanism for central nervous system (CNS) toxicity resulting in tonic-clonic seizures (convulsions involving both muscle stiffening and twitching or jerking) involves hyperoxia-induced free radical production overwhelming specific neural pathways, combined with localized neuron depolarization and hyperexcitability. This theory suggests that exposure to high partial pressures of oxygen results in an increase in the firing rate of specific neurons, notably those of a part of the brain called the caudal Solitary Complex (cSC), a portion of the dorsal medulla oblongata which is important in cardiorespiratory control and has some neurons that are particularly sensitive to hyperoxia and pro-oxidants (Ciarlone, 2019). The effect of this hypersensitivity combined with increased free radical production is theorized to be the stimulus for the seizure evolution seen in CNS oxygen toxicity, although other mechanisms bring epilepsy models into the fold and propose looping and self-amplifying circuits of neurons that result in seizure evolution. An additional mechanism proposes seizure onset as a result of hyperoxia induced enzyme inhibition, notably of Gama Amino Butyric Acid (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and inhibition of its production is theorized to result in neuronal excitation resulting in seizure (Treiman, 2001). These mechanisms are not exclusionary and in some instances may combine, overlap or catalyze each other.
Pulmonary oxygen toxicity is typically proposed to follow a similar inflammatory mechanism caused by free radical production and lipid peroxidation. These mechanisms involve redox and inflammatory damage throughout the body, primarily to the capillary endothelium and alveolar epithelium resulting in impaired gas exchange and neutrophil infiltration leading to respiratory failure (Ciarlone, 2019). The visible effect of this inflammatory reaction is the irritation of the airway, decreased gas exchange and eventual thickening of alveoli and damage to the alveoli and airway tissues.
There are several additional and notable mechanisms for both CNS and pulmonary toxicity that involve other sources of free radical damage catalyzing neural misfiring, damage to proteins and resulting immune responses, and inappropriate oxidative signals as a result of exposure to hyperbaric oxygen — what’s important to understand in this is not the specifics of the proposed models as much as the applied cause and effect. Exactly why each of these mechanisms functions as it does remains unclear in some instances, but the proposed hypotheses bring us closer to understanding what inputs can be altered to understand and eventually address the resulting symptoms of oxygen toxicity. What’s interesting to note is the significant overlap in many of the proposed mechanisms, many of which provide reactants for or accelerate other similar mechanisms, as well as the recent convergence of many theories on the concept of oxygen toxicities effects being inflammatory or autoimmune in nature.
The single most significant issue in applying what we know about oxygen toxicity isn’t the unknown nature of specific mechanisms, but the huge variability in the exposures that result in symptom evolution, even in the same individual on two separate days. This variability is partially a function of the many contributing factors in oxygen toxicity, resulting from differences in factors that contribute to, inhibit, or result in the catalysts involved in the mechanisms discussed above. The majority of this variability is proposed to be the result of both the multitude of pathways that result in injury, and factors like antioxidant defense levels, neurotransmitter levels, genetic factors, nitric oxide production rates, and hormone levels — particularly concerning thyroid function, epinephrine production and ACTH levels (Shykoff, 2019).
This variability is so great that some models propose that CNS toxicity can be affected by inert gases, visual input, and circadian rhythm (Mathieu, 2006). The result of all of this is that the list of variables that contribute to oxygen toxicity risk of all kinds is both incomplete, and so long and variable that they cannot possibly be controlled for in their entirety. In the real world this means that we must apply enormous levels of conservatism to what amounts to an educated guess at the average limits of divers. Comparison of models created by military researchers (using exceptionally fit young males performing difficult work underwater as a model), and academic models (using samples that more closely resemble the diving population) result in significant variability both by model and by acceptable risk.
For the most part we, as an industry, have found some success in settling for the current NOAA oxygen exposure guidelines, but even these see unexpected injuries in use. The management of some primary diving-related risk factors for oxygen toxicity has resulted in the ability of some divers to far exceed recommended guidelines seemingly without symptoms, but because of this variability we are largely unable to quantify the risk they face — it’s as of yet unclear if the diver performing hours long decompressions in a habitat is taking a gamble with each dive or maintaining a moderate safety margin with the controls they’ve put in place.
Carbon dioxide may be the greatest controllable risk factor in CNS oxygen toxicity, and unmitigated CO2 production and retention has been correlated with significantly increased seizure risk. This risk is primarily the result of the combination of CO2 production from exercise, combined with increased retention as a result of increased gas density, hydrostatic compression of the lungs, and dead space ventilation caused by the length of tubing in a breathing apparatus (Carlione, 2019). While breathing a hyperoxic gas may initially inhibit ventilation, continued exposure stimulates ventilation and decreases CO2 retention as long as that CO2 is effectively eliminated. The result of this is increased CO2 production and retention to increase arterial PCO2 and the production of respiratory acidosis. This is exacerbated by the oxygen induced interference with CO2 transport in the body, resulting in a higher dissolved PCO2 and decreased bicarbonate and carbamino concentrations (Carlione, 2019).
The resulting hypercapnic acidosis increases free radical species formation via a cascade of mechanisms involving an increase in hyperoxic blood delivery to the brain, and an interaction called the Fenton Reaction that in combination results in increased free radical production, which accelerates oxidative stress and increases seizure risk. Like the mechanisms above, this is a broadly accepted but still unproved hypothesis that results in an increase in seizure risk, but while the specifics of the interaction may be variable, the effect of CO2 on convulsion risk have been strongly correlated.
Hypothermia presents as a risk factor of its own, and one that compounds the effects of CO2. The specifics of this mechanism remain unclear but the reduction in peripheral blood blow, increased cardiac output and redistribution of blood volume to the core results in increased oxygen delivery to the CNS, which may compound issues with both with CO2 retention and delivery of hyperoxic blood to the brain (Mathieu, 2006). Other factors like circadian rhythm, sleep, inert gases, diet, and gender have been similarly correlated with decreased seizure latency (the time between stimulus and seizure onset), but with varying degrees of study and theorized modeling.
The real-world takeaway is that we know a little about a lot of proposed mechanisms, and a lot about very few facets of oxygen toxicity. There’s a growing convergence of theories around the idea of an inflammatory or immune response being central to the mechanisms for both CNS and pulmonary oxygen toxicity, and while these theories are quite good and have withstood significant testing, many have yet to be definitively proven. Academically the outlook is both more obscure and more hopeful — this article is just a brief summary of some of the more common models of oxygen toxicity, but there are numerous other contributory and more detailed models and mechanisms currently being researched to explain the effects of high partial pressures of oxygen on the human body.
It’s worth noting that as divers we are primarily concerned with just CNS and pulmonary toxicity, but the effects of oxygen in the body are far more reaching and involve numerous other physiological changes. The future of research into the topic yields promise both on academic and applied fronts. Trials with inhibitors of some free radicals, anti-adrenergic and anti-epileptic drugs, ketone metabolic therapy and hyperbaric preconditioning have shown significant promise in the reduction of oxygen toxicity effects.
Ongoing research into human exposure limits promises to improve our ability to plan real-world dives and extend out limits, and a broad field of researchers are working to overcome the gaps in knowledge that we currently have. There may not be a unique revelation in the currently published research that changes the way that you plan your dives, but the simultaneous progress on so many facets of our understanding indicates that are likely on the cusp of a new understanding of how to manage oxygen exposures and keep ourselves safe in the water.
Thank you to Dr. Andy Pitkin, Dr. Barbara Shykoff, and Dr. Neal Pollock for their willingness to share their expertise in their respective fields.
For more information on the specific mechanisms of oxygen toxicity and the ongoing clinical trials mentioned in this article, please visit the references linked below.
- Chawla, A., & Lavania, A. K. (2001). OXYGEN TOXICITY. Medical journal, Armed Forces India, 57(2), 131–133. doi:10.1016/S0377-1237(01)80133-7
- Cooper JS, Shah N. Oxygen Toxicity. [Updated 2019 Mar 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-.
- Ciarlone, G. E., Hinojo, C. M., Stavitzski, N. M., & Dean, J. B. (2019, March 9). CNS function and dysfunction during exposure to hyperbaric oxygen in operational and clinical settings.
- Treiman, D. M. (2001, December 20). GABAergic Mechanisms in Epilepsy.
- Shykoff, B. (2019). Oxygen Toxicity: Existing models, existing data. Presented during EUBS 2019 proceedings.
- Mathieu, D. (2006). Handbook on Hyperbaric Medicine. Dordrecht: Springer.
Reilly Fogarty is a team leader for risk mitigation initiatives at Divers Alert Network (DAN). When not working on safety programs for DAN, he can be found running technical charters and teaching rebreather diving in Gloucester, MA. Reilly is a USCG licensed captain whose professional background includes surgical and wilderness emergency medicine as well as dive shop management.
InDEPTH’s Holiday Rebreather Guide 2023
Making a list. Checking it twice. Gonna find out which breathers are naughty or nice. That’s right! It’s time again for InDEPTH’s Holiday Rebreather Guide. This year, we are featuring 32 models of back, sidemount and chest mounted rebreathers, including five new units for your shopping enjoyment. So, get out your Pre-Buy Checklist, and that Gift Card (you do have a gift card don’t you?!?), and buy the breather of your dreams. Ho, ho, hose!
by Michael Menduno, Amanda White and Kenzie Potter. Holiday images by Jason Brown, BARDO CREATIVE.
A Guide to Backmount, Sidemount and Frontmount Rebreathers
6 Dec 2023 – Ho ho ho! InDEPTH’s Holiday Rebreather Guide continues to pick up steam (machines). This season we added Mares Horizon semi closed rebreather and Lombardi Undersea Research’s new RD1 back mounted oxygen rebreather. We also added Lungfish Dive Systems “Lungfish,” And iQSub Technologies’ new FX-CCR front mounted breather along with the Flex2 sidemount CCR. As such we believe the Guide is the most complete one on the market! Pst, pst Mr. Scammahorn, are you still there? Happy shopping divers! Ho ho hose!
Remember you can find all of the Rebreather Forum 4 presentations here on GUE.tv: REBREATHER FORUM 4
1 Dec 2022 – Ho ho ho! Once again, we have updated InDEPTH’s Holiday Rebreather Guide adding two new rebreathers; the new Gemini sidemount, needle valve mCCR from Fathom Systems, and the Generic Breathing Machine (GBM) front mounted, needle valve mCCR, with a dive computer-compatible, solid state oxygen sensor from Scubatron. We also updated the features on the Divesoft Liberty sidemount, and the JJ-CCR. This year, Vobster Marine Systems was acquired by UK-based NAMMU Tech, which plans to rename and re-issue a version of the VMS Redbare. See link below.
Finally, Innerspace Systems’ founder Leon Scamahorn agreed to work on getting us the needed information to add the storied Megalodon to the Guide. Scratch last year’s coal, Xmas cookies for you Mr. Scamahorn! Happy holidays shoppers, here is our updated rebreather guide! Mind those PO2s!
17 Dec 2021 – Ho Ho Ho! We have updated our Holiday Rebreather Guide with new rebreathers and updated features. Despite repeated requests, the only major closed circuit rebreather we are missing is Innerspace Systems’ Megalodon and its siblings. Tsk, tsk Leon Scamahorn, you’ve been a naughty boy! Behold, here is our updated guide. Mind those PO2s!
However, it took the fledgling tech community at least a decade to adapt mixed gas technology for open circuit scuba, including establishing the necessary supporting infrastructure, which was the first and necessary step in the move to rebreathers. A little more than a decade after Stone showcased FRED, British diving entrepreneur Martin Parker, managing director of then AP Valves, launched the “Buddy Inspiration,” the first production closed circuit rebreather designed specifically for sport divers, earning him the moniker, the “Henry Ford of Rebreathers.” [The brand name later became AP Diving] KISS Rebreathers followed a little more than a year later with its mechanical, closed circuit unit, now dubbed the KISS Classic. The rest as they say, is history, our history.
Today, though open-circuit mixed gas diving is still an important platform, rebreathers have become the tool of choice for deep, and long exploration dives. For good reason, with a greatly extended gas supply, near optimal decompression, thermal and weight advantages, bubble-free silence, and let’s not forget the cool factor, rebreathers enable tech divers to greatly extend their underwater envelope beyond the reach of open circuit technology.
As a result, divers now have an abundance of rebreather brands to choose from. Accordingly, we thought it fitting this holiday season to offer up this geeky guide for rebreather shoppers. Want to find out whose breathers are naughty or nice? Here is your chance.
Your Geeky Holiday Guide
The idea for this holiday guide was originally proposed to us by Divesoft’s U.S. General Manager Matěj Fischer. Thank you Matěj! Interestingly, it doesn’t appear to have been done before. Our goal was to include all major brands of closed circuit rebreathers in back mount and sidemount configuration in order to enable shoppers to make a detailed comparison. In that we have largely succeeded. We also included Halcyon Dive Systems’ semi-closed RB80 and more recent RBK sidemount unit, which are both being used successfully as exploration tools.
Absent are US-based Innerspace Systems, which makes the Megalodon and other models, as well as Submatix, based in Germany, which manufactures the Quantum and sidemount SMS 200, neither of which returned our communications. M3S, which makes the Titan, declined our invitation to participate, as they recently discontinued their TITAN CCR—they will be coming out with a replacement unit, the TITAN Phoenix CCR in the near future. We did not include the MARES Horizon, a semi-closed circuit rebreather that is aimed at recreational divers. No doubt, there may be brands we inadvertently missed. Our apologies. Contact us. We can update.
Update (22 Jul 2021) – French rebreather manufacturer M3S contacted us and sent us the specs for their updated chest-mounted Triton CCR, which are now included in the guide.
Update (9 Dec 2020) – Submatix contacted us and the Guide now contains their Quantum (back mount) and SMS 200 (sidemount) rebreathers. We were also contacted by Open Safety Equipment Ltd. and have added their Apocalypse back mounted mechanical closed circuit rebreather. We will add other units as they are presented to us by the vendors.
It’s The Concept, Stupid
The plan was to focus on the feature sets of the various rebreathers to provide an objective means to compare various units. But features by themselves do not a rebreather make. As Pieter Decoene, Operations Manager at rEvo Rebreathers, pointed out to me early on, every rebreather is based on “a concept,” that is more than just the sum of its features. That is to say that the inventors focused on specific problems or issues they deemed important in their designs; think rEvo’s dual scrubbers, Divesoft’s redundant electronics, or integration of open and closed circuit in the case of Dive Rite’s recently launched O2ptima Chest Mount. Shoppers, please consider that as you peruse the various offerings. My thanks to Pieter, who helped us identify and define key features and metrics that should be considered.
Though not every unit on the market has been third-party tested according to Conformitè Europëenne (CE) used for goods sold in the European Union, we decided to use CE test results for some of the common feature benchmarks such as the Work of Breathing (WOB), and scrubber duration. For vendors that do not have CE testing, we suggested that they use the figures that they publicize in their marketing materials and asked that they specify the source of the data if possible. As such, the guide serves as an imperfect comparison, but a comparison nonetheless.
Also, don’t be misled by single figures, like work of breathing or scrubber duration as they serve only as a kind of benchmark—there is typically a lot more behind them. For example, whether a rebreather is easy to breathe or not is a function of elastance, work of breathing (WOB) and hydrostatic imbalance. In order to pass CE, the unit must meet CE test requirements for all three issues in all positions from head down, to horizontal trim, to being in vertical position (Watch that trim!), to lying on your back looking upwards. It’s more difficult to pass the tests in some positions versus others, and some units do better in some positions than others.
The result is that some of the feature data, like WOB, is more nuanced than it appears at first glance. “The problem you have is people take one value (work of breathing for instance) and then buy the product based on that, but it just isn’t that simple an issue,” Martin Parker explained to me. “It’s like people buying a BCD based on the buoyancy; bigger is better, right? Wrong! It’s the ability of the BCD to hold air near your centre of gravity determines how the BC performs. With rebreathers you can have good work of breathing on a breathing machine only to find it completely ruined by it’s hydrostatic imbalance or elastance.”
Due to their design, sidemount rebreathers are generally not able to pass CE requirements in all positions. Consequently, almost all currently do not have CE certification; the T-Reb has a CE certification with exceptions. However, that does not necessarily mean that the units haven’t been third-party tested.
Note that the guide, which is organized alphabetically by manufacturer, contains the deets for each of their featured models. In addition, there are two master downloadable spreadsheets, one for back mounted units and one for sidemount. Lastly, I’d also like to give a shout out to British photog phenom Jason Brown and the BARDOCreative Team (Thank you Georgina!), for helping us inject a bit of the Xmas cheer into this geeky tech tome [For insiders: this was Rufus and Rey’s modeling debut!]. Ho, ho, hose!
With this background and requisite caveats, we are pleased to offer you our Rebreather Holiday Shoppers’ Guide. Happy Holidays!!
Note – Most prices shown below were specified by manufacturer before tax.
Download our two master spreadsheets, one for back mounted units and one for sidemount to compare rebreathers.
Special thanks to Amy LaSalle at GUE HQ for her help assembling the feature spreadsheets.
Michael Menduno is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018. In addition to his responsibilities at InDepth, Menduno is a contributing editor for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine and X-Ray Magazine, a staff writer for DeeperBlue.com, and is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA)
Amanda White is the managing editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Kenzie Potter Stephens is a production artist for InDepth as well as part of the GUE marketing team. She earned her BS degree in Industrial Engineering and Marketing at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, which assists her in using her multicultural upbringing to foster international growth within the community. In addition to her activities as a yoga teacher and an underwater rugby trainer, she has completed her GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1 training and is on her way to becoming a GUE instructor. Not letting any grass grow under her feet, she has also taken on a second major in biochemistry in order to create a deeper understanding of our planet’s unique ecosystems as well as the effect of diving on human physiology.