Rising levels of carbon dioxide on board the Titanic may have acted as a sedative that sent the five stranded explorers ‘to sleep’, experts warned today.
Rescue teams race across the Atlantic Ocean to find the deep-sea Titan ship against time with oxygen levels rapidly depleting.
Electrical power could already be lost inside the 22ft vessel, experts fear. This means that vital ‘scrubbers’ designed to filter out toxic levels of CO2 in confined spaces may already have shut down.
As oxygen levels decrease, the carbon dioxide exhalation ratio will increase.
Dr. Ken Ledges, a hyperbaric medicine specialist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, said: ‘It becomes absorbent, it becomes like an anesthetic gas and you go to sleep.’
CO2 poisoning can be fatal. This can lead to suffocation or hypercapnia, when too much gas floods the bloodstream.
However, another risk presented by the Titan subs could help them survive in time to be rescued, experts claim.
Hypothermia – a potential threat due to the low temperatures at sea depths – could see the crew lose consciousness and ‘live’ in an agonizing wait.
The Titan ship will have a carbon dioxide scrubber to remove excess toxic gases produced when passengers exhale in confined spaces, but it will have limited capacity to most craft. There is also the risk of hypothermia due to lower temperatures at sea depths, as well as hyperventilation induced by panic attacks, which can use up more precious oxygen.
At 9.45am – one hour and 45 minutes into the sinking – it lost contact with its mothership, the Polar Prince. But the US Coast Guard was not reported missing until eight hours later at 5.40pm. The Canadian Coast Guard was not alerted until 9:13 p.m. Sunday.
According to the US Coast Guard, the company’s Titan sank at 8 a.m. EST Sunday, 400 miles southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland. It lost contact at 9.45 am but it was not reported to the Coast Guard until 5.40 pm.
He told BBC News that without power, oxygen levels would drop and the amount of carbon dioxide in the crew’s breath would increase.
‘As carbon dioxide levels rise, it becomes sedative, it becomes like an anesthetic gas and you go to sleep,’ he said.
Inhaling high levels of the gas can lead to hypercapnia, also known as carbon dioxide toxicity.
Under normal conditions, the value of PCO2 – the carbon dioxide pressure in the blood vessels – should be between 35 and 45 mmHg.
But anything over 45mmHg – the high concentration of gas in the body’s arteries – causes changes in brain activity that adversely affect both fine muscle control and reasoning, as oxygen levels drop.
These include headaches, double vision and lack of concentration or choking.
If left untreated, it can lead to suffocation, which proves fatal.
Studies have shown that when carbon dioxide levels in the body exceed 10 percent, insufficient oxygen can lead to fainting and death by asphyxiation within minutes.
Humans can survive for about 15 minutes without oxygen, although they lose consciousness long before that, with brain damage likely after only a few minutes without air.
Similarly, ex-Royal Navy clearance diver and Falklands veteran Ray Sinclair also warned that five passengers could have already succumbed to these toxic carbon dioxide levels.
Mr Sinclair took part in deep-sea sinkings in the North Sea in 1984 in a small submarine which became separated from the parent ship, such as the lost ship Titan.
He told Daily Express US: ‘These submarines have batteries that have a finite life and they have CO2 scrubbers.
‘When they die, people can suffocate before they run out of oxygen as toxic gas fills their lungs.
‘If the CO2 scrubber dies, it will be a matter of hours for them to do the same. The build up of gas will make them feel drowsy very quickly and they will pass out.
‘CO2 has nowhere to go. I am concerned that this has already happened.
‘It’s an absolute nightmare scenario, no diver could ever imagine, but realistically, I think it could still be a few days before we find them.’
The wreck of the Titanic (12,500 feet) is far below the level of water pressure that humans can withstand without the protection of a submarine. If the Titan’s hull breaks, experts say the chances of survival are almost nil
In a scientific paper published last month, Dr. Dale Molle, former director of undersea medicine and radiation health for the US Navy, warned of toxic carbon dioxide levels if passengers were trapped in the Titan submarine.
In his paper published in Ciotone’s Disaster Medicine journal, Dr Molle said: ‘Crew trapped in a sunken ship or submarine face many physiological challenges, including exposure to toxic gases, high ambient pressure and hypothermia.’
Dr Molle also told Newstimesuk.com this week: ‘Whenever people are trapped in an airtight space, most people think of oxygen, but carbon dioxide is actually a bigger concern.
‘In a submarine, they will have some mechanism to scrub the carbon dioxide. If they lose battery power, the system won’t work.’
A scrubbing system removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making the air safe to breathe.
Dr Moll said: ‘When people inside breathe in oxygen, they will give off oxygen and it will go from 21 per cent to 17 per cent. [oxygen]. But they will give off carbon dioxide, and that carbon dioxide has to be removed because otherwise it becomes toxic.
People inside will find it difficult to breathe, their breathing depth will increase. They will have a headache and gradually faint.
‘Increasing levels of carbon dioxide are the first to kill people when they are in an airtight environment, not oxygen levels.’
But in addition to these factors, five tourists must contend with the possibility of hypothermia setting in quickly.
There is little light in the deep ocean and the temperature at 12,500 feet is about 2°C (36°F).
If the ship is stranded on the seabed, the water temperature may also be around 0°C (32°F).
In humans, hypothermia can occur in water as cold as 4°C (40°F), where body systems begin to shut down with exhaustion and confusion.
Without electrical power, the vessel will not generate power or heat.
But hypothermia ‘can be their friend’, Dr Ledez also warned.
‘If they get cold enough and lose consciousness they can live through it – rescuers know that,’ he said.
The body will automatically try to adapt to survive, he added.
But he warned: ‘If they’re unconscious they won’t be able to do much to help themselves.’
But Dr Nicolai Rotterman, a deep-sea ecologist and lecturer in marine biology at the University of Portsmouth, also warned that oxygen stored on ships could increase the risk of explosions.
He said: ‘Another equally unpleasant prospect is fire.
‘The air in deep-sea submersibles can be rich in oxygen, which can increase the risk and severity of fires.
‘Petroleum-based makeup and skin creams are often prohibited in deep-sea dives due to fire hazards.
‘Even without oxygen enrichment, any fire in such a confined space would quickly incapacitate the occupants.’
The Titan disappeared while diving towards the wreck of the Titanic, 12,500 feet below the surface of the water.
The ship sank about 400 miles southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland at 8 a.m. EST on Sunday.
It lost contact with its mothership at 9.45pm – sinking for one hour and 45 minutes.
It includes five people, including British billionaire adventurer Hamish Harding and one of Pakistan’s richest men, Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleiman.
Others on board were Shahzada Dawood, his son Suleiman, 19, Oceangate chief executive and founder Stockton Rush and French submersible pilot Paul-Henri Nargiolet.
Although some animals can survive at extreme depths thanks to extreme adaptations, humans can only go about 400 feet without the aid of modern technology.
The sea area off Newfoundland is packed with boats and equipment trying to find the missing sub
The deepest human free dive, a deep swim without any equipment like scuba gear, only goes to 400 feet and is still dangerous.
Special equipment, such as special gas mixtures to cope with the intense pressure of the ocean depths, has enabled only human divers to reach depths of about 1,700 feet.
Even whales that have evolved to feed in the deep sea go as high as 10,000 feet.
The deep sea is so inhospitable in part because of pressure.
At the depths of the Titanic’s wreckage, the pressure would be about 380 times greater than that experienced by humans on the surface.
Canadian aircraft picked up sounds by sonar – some of which could be heard at regular 30-minute intervals – as of yesterday afternoon, close to where the Titan submersible disappeared.
But the Coast Guard admitted last night that the extensive search of an area 435 miles off Newfoundland had so far ‘returned negative results’.
And as it specifically predicted that the oxygen supply would run out at 12.08pm UK time today, specialist equipment was rushed to the scene to help with operations overnight.
Dr. David Gallo, a deep-sea explorer, said it would take several hours to recover the submarine.
Speaking to Good Morning Britain, he said: ‘In this case, the noise repeats itself, every half an hour I believe.
‘Three different aircraft heard it on their sensors at the same time and it lasted for two days.
‘It’s still going on obviously. There aren’t many things in the natural world that we can think of that would do this every 30-minute cycle.
‘At this point, we have to assume it’s the submarine and quickly go to the location, locate it and land the robot to verify where the submarine is.
‘They have to be fully prepared as if it was the sub because it takes a while to locate it and bring it to the surface, it takes hours.’
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