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Breath-hold research could save lives

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Matthew White, 604.268.6895,
Carol Thorbes, pamr, 604.291.3035,

July 18, 2006
Helicopters need to be equipped with breathing systems that passengers can don before their choppers crash into ice-cold, open waters, if federal regulators are to improve the abysmal survival rate in such accidents.

Simon Fraser University kinesiologist Matthew White’s research team reached that conclusion after investigating further another group’s study that found helicopter-crash survivors in warm water need 28 to 92 seconds to escape.

White is helping policymakers decide whether specially designed breathing systems for people such as peacekeepers and offshore oil rig workers, whose jobs take them over open water, are necessary.

Recently, a military search-and-rescue helicopter crashed into the ocean off Nova Scotia, claiming three lives and injuring four other people. Eighty percent of helicopter passengers survive an initial crash. However, only 20 percent of such survivors escape drowning.

In 2004, White’s team found that in zero Celsius water, which approximates the temperature of northern open oceans, women could hold their breath for only 15 seconds and men for only 25 seconds.

White’s latest research indicates that helicopter-crash survivors in sub-zero temperature water (20 degrees C) have a potentially fatal gasp response from the moment their faces hit cold water.

White, a North Shore resident, says that there’s no point in training helicopter passengers to hold their breath longer underwater in the cold-water conditions of the North Atlantic and Pacific.

He adds: “They need to be wearing breathing systems before their faces even hit the water and during their escape swim to the surface.”

White is collaborating with researchers at Memorial and Dalhousie Universities in eastern Canada.

—30— (electronic photo files available)