media release

Diving drunk in SFU’s hyperbaric chamber

October 24, 2013

Sherri Ferguson, SFU Science, 778.782.3782,
Dixon Tam, SFU media relations, 778.782.8742,

Photos for download:

(We are offering media the opportunity to experience nitrogen narcosis in the hyperbaric chamber – this is open to certified and non-certified diver – on Oct. 28 at 2 p.m. Limited spots available – first come, first served. Please contact Dixon Tam to make arrangements.)

Simon Fraser University is offering the public a unique opportunity to experience the effects of hypoxia and nitrogen narcosis in a controlled environment that could help save lives.

The school’s environmental medicine and physiology unit (EMPU) is home to Canada’s only civilian research hyper/hypobaric chamber. Resembling two Tic Tacs stacked on top of each other, the upper chamber is kept dry while the lower one can be filled with water.

The unit comprises a ‘dry’ chamber that simulates atmospheric conditions from 20 miles above sea level to 1,000 feet below sea level. The wet dive-simulation chamber holds more than 2,500 gallons of fresh water and can accommodate a diver and safety attendant.

“First-hand recognition of hypoxia or nitrogen narcosis symptoms is important – it’s better than reading about it in a book,” says Sherri Ferguson, EMPU’s director. “Each person’s reaction and symptoms can be different and recognition from remembering the experience is greater than what they’ve read.”

Nitrogen narcosis occurs when divers descend to depths greater than 30 metres. It can result in feeling drunk, which can be dangerous if the symptoms are not recognized immediately. The signs include euphoria, paranoia, memory loss, cognitive impairment, and impaired motor skills.

Hypoxia is a condition that happens when pilots are exposed to a low oxygen environment, typically at an altitude above 10,000 feet. They will experience symptoms such as euphoria, sweating, upset stomach, mood change, visual impairment, impaired cognitive function, tinnitus, unconsciousness, and difficulty with attention.

Identifying the symptoms of each condition early enough may allow a diver or pilot to take action to prevent a potentially fatal incident.

One-evening workshops for certified divers are available now and organized by local dive shops and clubs. They involve a one-hour introduction to the chamber, plus a half-hour dive down to 160 feet where divers giggle and test their mental abilities and motor skills as they experience the effects of narcosis impairment.

The divers are then brought back up to 30 feet where they don oxygen masks for decompression. A physician and safety attendant are on site throughout the workshop and divers must remain in the lab for at least an hour in case of decompression sickness.

“It’s a controlled dive and safer than what they would normally do,” says Ferguson. “The divers love seeing the chamber and how it works—it’s not something that they would normally experience.”

Simon Fraser University is Canada's top-ranked comprehensive university and one of the top 50 universities in the world under 50 years old. With campuses in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, B.C., SFU engages actively with the community in its research and teaching, delivers almost 150 programs to more than 30,000 students, and has more than 120,000 alumni in 130 countries.


Simon Fraser University: Engaging Students. Engaging Research. Engaging Communities.

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