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Study looks at effects of oxygen depletion on high-altitude workers in Chile

Researcher Marc Poulin part of international team examining body and brain-altering effects of hypoxia
January 27, 2016
From left: Marc Poulin, University of Calgary; Cristian Villaroel, Chilean Ministry of Health; Silvia Riquelme, chief, Labour Health Department, Chilean Ministry of Health; Juan Jose Hauvegronin, Chilean Ministry of Health; Alicia Morales Soto, Indura S.A.; Sara Hartmann, University of Calgary; Silvia Ulrich, University of Zurich; Konrad Bloch, University of Zurich; and Ivan Lopez, Health and Safety Manager, ALMA Observatory. Photos courtesy of Marc Poulin

From left: Marc Poulin, University of Calgary; Cristian Villaroel, Chilean Ministry of Health; Silvia Riquelme, chief, Labour Health Department, Chilean Ministry of Health; Juan Jose Hauvegronin, Chilean Ministry of Health; Alicia Morales Soto, Indura S.A.; Sara Hartmann, University of Calgary; Silvia Ulrich, University of Zurich; Konrad Bloch, University of Zurich; and Ivan Lopez, Health and Safety Manager, ALMA Observatory. Photos courtesy of Marc Poulin

Sarah Hartmann, left, and Marc Poulin stand in front of an ALMA antenna weighing more than 100 tons.  Engineers had to design two ALMA transporters to move 66 antenna safely along the 28-kilometre road from the Operations Support Facility at an altitude of 3,000 metres to the Chajnantor plateau at an altitude of 5,050 metres, as well as to move them to new positions on the plateau as necessary.

Sarah Hartmann, left, and Marc Poulin stand in front of an ALMA antenna weighing more than 100 tons.  Engineers had to design two ALMA transporters to move 66 antenna safely along the 28-kilometre road from the Operations Support Facility at an altitude of 3,000 metres to the Chajnantor plateau at an altitude of 5,050 metres, as well as to move them to new positions on the plateau as necessary.

The international team in front of an ALMA antenna. ALMA is the world’s most powerful telescope for studying the universe at submillimetre and millimetre wavelengths, on the boundary between infrared light and the longer radio waves.

The international team in front of an ALMA antenna. ALMA is the world’s most powerful telescope for studying the universe at submillimetre and millimetre wavelengths, on the boundary between infrared light and the longer radio waves.

Astronomers, engineers and other employees at one of the highest observatories on Earth discover monstrous galaxies cradled in dark matter 11.5 billion light-years away. These discoveries are made using one of the most powerful telescopes on the planet to observe star births and jets of electrons streaming from giant black holes at the speed of light.

Important discoveries are possible in the thin air at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) Observatory in Chile, but after a day of work at 5,050 meters — close to the elevation of Everest Base Camp — some employees report blacking out or falling asleep at the wheel as they wind their way back down the mountain.

Marc Poulin, PhD, a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) and the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine and Faculty of Kinesiology, is on a quest to learn whether some of the body and brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion are causing untold accidents at the observatory and on the ride down from Chile’s Atacama Desert.

International team of researchers study health and safety of high altitude workers

The employees’ repeated exposure to the thin air is the topic of high-altitude research planned for April 2016, when Poulin will lead a team of 10 trained researchers from Canada, Switzerland and the U.S., who will meet at ALMA to study the effects of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) on the health and safety of high-altitude workers.

The people at the observatory experience a unique form of hypoxia. They work at high altitude (5,050 meters) for eight days, and return home, near sea level (500 meters) for six days. This cycle doesn’t allow for workers to completely adapt to the high altitude. 

Doctors don’t yet understand the long-term effects of repeated or intermittent exposure to hypoxia, although when exposed to high altitude continuously, climbers are advised by medical experts to ascend only 300 meters a day at altitudes over 3,000 meters to give their bodies time to adapt. 

“Considering most of the employees live near sea level but work up at 5,050 meters, a great health and safety risk is imposed,” says Poulin, a professor in the departments of physiology & pharmacology and clinical neurosciences. “It’s important to understand the consequences of the ascent on their performance, health and safety.”

Lack of oxygen can compromise memory, attention and planning abilities

Sara Hartmann, PhD, the study coordinator and a post-doctoral fellow in Poulin’s lab, believes the most significant issue is an employee’s ability to undertake the complex tasks necessary for safe work performance — memory, attention and planning.

“These likely become compromised at altitude because of the lack of oxygen and the inadequate time for the body to adapt," says Hartmann.

Exposure to low oxygen levels at high altitudes is known to cause acute mountain sickness with common symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and difficulty sleeping. When the symptoms from altitude sickness are more serious, people can experience swelling in the brain and lungs. 

“Everything is impacted by the lack of oxygen at high altitudes,” says Poulin. “The amount of work people do, their level of endurance, their brain and memory, and how fast people can think on their feet. These may contribute to an increased rate of accidents.”

Study in Chile aims to find treatment options for workers at various altitudes

Of the 400 ALMA employees, 80 will be studied to understand the effects of repeated and sustained exposure to hypoxia. For six weeks, the medical team will test their cognitive functions, quality of sleep, control of breathing and blood circulation in the lungs and brain.

Poulin expects the evidence from this and other studies to point to treatment options for workers at various altitudes.

ALMA is an international partnership. Sponsors of the study include ALMA, Indura (Chile), the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the study’s Swiss colleagues, who will provide personnel and equipment costs.

Led by the HBI, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals.

Any students interested in the possibility of taking part in this international study in Chile should email Poulin or Hartmann.