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Raising the alert for dangerously low oxygen levels in aircraft

Friday, 13 November 2015 at 3:36:PM

Military pilotReading my copy of New Scientist as I do most lunchtimes, I was interested to come across a story about breath monitoring of pilots using GC–MS.

Stories about analytical chemistry don’t often make it into the mainstream ‘public interest’ science press, so it was all the more pleasing that the research cited used Markes’ equipment.

The study, published in the Journal of Breath Research (and also summarised on the Institute of Physics website) used our TD-100 automated thermal desorber with GC–MS to profile the VOCs in the breath of high-altitude pilots, to see if markers could be found for the onset of low body oxygen levels, known as hypoxia.

Hypoxia is dangerous because currently pilots are required to recognise the symptoms themselves – but the condition itself can impair judgement or even cause loss of consciousness. The same problem also affects the usefulness of oxygen sensors, especially in situations where oxygen levels drop suddenly.

So there is a need to develop systems that can unambiguously detect the onset of hypoxia in real-time – and this is what has been studied by a group at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, USA.

Using pumped-tube sampling with analysis on our TD-100 automated thermal desorber and GC–MS, a team led by Claude Grigsby profiled the breath volatiles of pilots subjected to reduced oxygen levels.

They found that levels of seven compounds – pentanal, 4-butyrolactone, pentan-2-one, hexan-2-one, cyclopent-2-enone, 3-methylheptane and heptan-2-one – fell significantly in response to hypoxic conditions. The authors say that their work is the first time that biomarkers of hypoxia in humans have been identified, without the need for invasive medical techniques.

The next step, they say, is to apply this technology to the standard military aircrew mask, in order to rapidly diagnose hypoxia in-flight, and so raise the alert more quickly and reliably when oxygen falls to dangerously low levels.

So this is a particularly interesting example of the value of breath monitoring for diagnosing dangerous medical conditions – adding to those that we’ve previously highlighted on this blog.

David Barden

Further information

For lots more examples of studies into monitoring VOCs in breath using TD, have a look at the “Disease diagnosis” section of our literature compendium, Application Note 004 (“Publications and presentations citing Markes’ products”).


David Barden received his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Cambridge University in 2004, and during his time as an editor at the RSC wrote news pieces for Chemistry World on various scientific topics. He is now Technical Copywriter at Markes International, where he draws on the expertise of his colleagues to explain how new thermal desorption and mass spectrometry technologies can be applied to analyse volatile organic compounds in a wide variety of situations.

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