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Acute Exposure to Low-to-Moderate Carbon Dioxide Levels and Submariner Decision Making

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BACKGROUND: Submarines routinely operate with higher levels of ambient carbon dioxide (CO2) (i.e., 2000 – 5000 ppm) than what is typically considered normal (i.e., 400 – 600 ppm). Although significant cognitive impairments are rarely reported at these elevated CO2 levels, recent studies using the Strategic Management Simulation (SMS) test have found impairments in decision-making performance during acute CO2 exposure at levels as low as 1000 ppm. This is a potential concern for submarine operations, as personnel regularly make mission-critical decisions that affect the safety and efficiency of the vessel and its crew while exposed to similar levels of CO2. The objective of this study was to determine if submariner decision-making performance is impacted by acute exposure to levels of CO2 routinely present in the submarine atmosphere during sea patrols.

METHODS: Using a subject-blinded balanced design, 36 submarine-qualified sailors were randomly assigned to receive 1 of 3 CO2 exposure conditions (600, 2500, or 15,000 ppm). After a 45-min atmospheric acclimation period, participants completed an 80-min computer-administered SMS test as a measure of decision making.

RESULTS: There were no significant differences for any of the nine SMS measures of decision making between the CO2 exposure conditions.

DISCUSSION: In contrast to recent research demonstrating cognitive deficits on the SMS test in students and professional-grade office workers, we were unable to replicate this effect in a submariner population—even with acute CO2 exposures more than an order of magnitude greater than those used in previous studies that demonstrated such effects.

Rodeheffer CD, Chabal S, Clarke JM, Fothergill DM. Acute exposure to low-to-moderate carbon dioxide levels and submariner decision making. Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2018; 89(6):520–525.
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Keywords: carbon dioxide; cognitive performance; enclosed environments; submarines

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2018

More about this publication?
  • This journal (formerly Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine), representing the members of the Aerospace Medical Association, is published monthly for those interested in aerospace medicine and human performance. It is devoted to serving and supporting all who explore, travel, work, or live in hazardous environments ranging from beneath the sea to the outermost reaches of space. The original scientific articles in this journal provide the latest available information on investigations into such areas as changes in ambient pressure, motion sickness, increased or decreased gravitational forces, thermal stresses, vision, fatigue, circadian rhythms, psychological stress, artificial environments, predictors of success, health maintenance, human factors engineering, clinical care, and others. This journal also publishes notes on scientific news and technical items of interest to the general reader, and provides teaching material and reviews for health care professionals.

    To access volumes 74 through 85, please click here.
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