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Secrets of a Master Builder

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People & Events: Caisson Disease

During the building of James Eads' St. Louis Bridge, several of the construction workers digging out the riverbed from inside the caissons fell ill. An alarmed Eads shortened his men's working hours, and called his personal doctor on the scene. Still, some of the workers died. They were victims of caisson disease.

This condition, also known as the bends or decompression sickness, is caused by the formation of gas bubbles in the body. Human body tissues contain small amounts of the gases present in the air. At great depths underwater, because of the increased air pressure, larger amounts of gas can be held in solution in the body. However, when a diver or underwater construction worker rises to the surface of the water, the pressure decreases and the gases come out of solution. Oxygen doesn't cause a problem, because it is used up by the cells of the body. Carbon dioxide is simply exhaled. Nitrogen, on the other hand, accumulates. When the pressure decreases, the dissolved nitrogen comes out of solution, forming tiny bubbles in the blood and tissues of the body.

Nitrogen bubbles in the respiratory system can cause excessive coughing and difficulty in breathing. Other symptoms include, chest pain, dizziness, paralysis, unconsciousness or blindness. In extreme cases, caisson disease can cause death.

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