Surgeon warns against use of heat packs in sea diving after freak accident

A SURGEON has warned scuba divers against using heat packs on deep dives after treating a man who received severe burns in a freak accident off the Cork coast last year.

Mr John Curran, a specialist registrar in plastic and reconstructive surgery at Cork University Hospital (CUH) who treated the diver, issued the warning while describing the case in the latest edition of the Journal of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery.

He described it as the first documented case of severe burns sustained by a diver as a result of the auto-ignition of air-activated heat packs at high pressure.

His 31-year-old patient was part of a team diving on the wreck of the Lusitania off the Old Head of Kinsale when the accident occurred at a depth of some 80 metres last September.

The man was wearing a three-layer wetsuit and an undersuit. He had four air-activated heat packs inside the undersuit at each shoulder and hip.

The pads generate heat through a chemical reaction using sodium acetate, water, and metal. But his pads ruptured about 20 minutes into the dive when he was 80 metres below the surface.

Doctors believe that due to high pressure and the high concentrations of oxygen in his suit, the chemical reaction happened faster than normal, generating higher temperatures.

The diver suffered deep chemical-related burns to 35% of his body. They were made worse by the fact that the polyester and nylon in his dive suits melted.

Despite his injuries, he managed to make his way to the dive boat following a controlled ascent which took about two hours due to decompression stops.

He was airlifted by Coast Guard helicopter to Cork Airport and was rushed by ambulance to CUH.

He has had seven operations but has since been discharged and is recovering well.

“Air-activated heat packs should never be used at high pressures,” Mr Curran said in his journal article.

“Because of the high pressure and high oxygen, auto-ignition started. The suit was dry on the inside and completely sealed.

“He was lucky that the fire burst his suit open and the in-flowing of sea water put the fire out and relieved his excruciating pain. That allowed him to make a controlled ascent in two hours.”

Mr Curran also pointed out that the US marine corps banned the wearing by service personnel of nylon and polyester containing sports wear, in addition to standard issue kit, while engaged in combat operations in Iraq in 2006.

The man was diving under licence issued by the Department of the Environment.

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