All water is contaminated water. We've all heard about pollution in the water, but what about when you are a Public Safety Diver? What about when your task is to recover a body that has been in the water for "X" amount of time and you don't have even the slightest clue about what possible diseases that body might be carrying?
This is a question that has weighed on my mind since joining a rescue and recovery team. Especially since my team like many others, doesn't have a lot of funding. If you are involved in SCUBA or you are a PSD then you know exactly how expensive equipment is. Recently I had the opportunity to take a class that touched on this topic. The instructors stressed being safe and confirmed that, YES - you CAN get a transmittable disease from a dead body you are attempting to recover.
Ew. Ok. Full stop. What are these diseases, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, ... ? How do we avoid this? This is what I was able to turn up with some research. Hep C takes only a microscopic drop of blood to transmit. There is NO vaccine for Hep C. The virus may remain viable for up to 3 weeks in a moist environment. (DAN Diving and Hep C) In theory, this seems to mean that if a body being recovered is a carrier of Hep C and a PSD has a leak in their suit or their skin isn't fully encapsulated and exposed, they are at risk for contracting the Hep C virus. If a PSD has so much as a micro-abrasion in their skin that is all the virus needs to find a way in. More research i.e. Guidance For Diving Contaminated Waters, indicates that HIV and hepatitis are most likely to occur during the recovery of human remains. It also reminds us of the danger of hypodermic needles. It is not far fetched to think that a PSD could come into contact with a used hypodermic needle, especially when working in areas frequented by people or floodwater situations.
More reading suggests that there is no single equipment configuration that can protect divers from all possible contaminants. When we say all possible contaminants we are referring to all categories of contaminants from bio hazards to industrial, chemical, and radiological. The type of protection you need depends on the potential hazard you are facing, it's urgency and the equipment available. Lets also not forget that surface tenders can also be at equal risk to contaminants as the diver.
Using a standard regulator or even a half face mask is a hard NO. If this is all your team is providing or the only equipment you have available, to put it simply - there is no amount of money, guts, glory or fame that could get me to do this. All it takes is micro droplets entering the divers mouth to contaminate the diver. Even when diving with a full face mask the concern for the inhalation of micro droplets, exposure to the divers ears, neck and head are not fully eliminated. However, a FFM may reasonably encapsulate a divers mucous membranes. Both the NOAA and the EPA use FFM's for contaminated water diving.
The Navy seems to suggest that a FFM and a rebreather used in a protective over suit is a way to be fully encapsulated.
Wet suits are also a hard NO. Vulcanized dry suits that are fitted to the diver are what a diver needs to be protected. Chemically resistant waterproof gloves are also important. Divers should not be diving in contaminated water if they have known wounds, no matter how seemingly innocuous the wound may be. If a wound occurs during a dive the dive should be aborted.
Decon is also very important - but that will be a separate blog.
Currently there are 2.7 - 3.9 million in the USA with chronic Hep C. There are 17,000 new cases reported every year. ( American Liver Foundation ). About 1.2 million in the USA have HIV and 13% of them are unaware they have contracted the virus. ( hiv.gov)
The bottom line is protect yourself. If your team is lacking the funding to get the proper equipment do what it takes to get it or don't do the dive.
Vulcanized drysuit vendors: 1) https://www.amronintl.com/viking.html