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Environmental physiology lab funded

(June 22, 2000, Gazette)

By Sharon Gray

A laboratory on the ground floor of the Phys Ed building is being renovated to study issues in human environmental physiology and safety in Newfoundland's offshore industries. Dr. Matthew White has nearly half a million dollars to get started on this research, including a recently-announced grant of $183,000 from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

The CFI grant is matched by money from the School of Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics, which is paying $100,000 to help with laboratory renovations. Other contributions include $60,000 from the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency, an in-kind contribution from the Ocean Safety and Survival Centre in Foxtrap for use of their facilities, and Dr. White's own research grants including a President's Special Initiatives Grant of $25,000 for working in environmental physiology. He also has permission to use the wave tank at the National Research Council's Institute for Marine Dynamics.

Altogether it adds up to a four-year project that Dr. White believes could help set new industry standards for working on the North Atlantic, which has one of the most extreme weather climates in the world. It also opens up a new discipline of study — environmental physiology — at Memorial. Environmental physiology includes the study of human responses to extreme environments, such as shivering and sweating. Dr. White has already worked in collaboration with the Centre for Offshore and Remote Medicine (MEDICOR) in the Faculty of Medicine on studies of commercial divers working in extreme cold and how that affects their physiological functions.

"We'll be looking at survival suits — right now we don't have an objective method of studying the equipment that is being used by the companies that are supplying the workers for the oil rigs, either on the rigs or during helicopter transport to and from the rigs where they need to be wearing survival suits."

What happens when a diver has to evacuate from a ditched helicopter? What protection does a worker need when putting out a fire on an oil rig? These are the type of extreme situations Dr. White will be studying.
His work will extend to people working in the fishing industry.

"Limb cooling is an aspect that is often overlooked. Sometimes when people fall off a boat, it's not that they drown but that their limbs very quickly lose strength from the cold and they are not even able to hold on to a life raft or pull themselves into it. They end up not dying of hypothermia right away, but perhaps perish in the waves because they can't hang on to the boat. We need to look at protection devices for their hands."

In the laboratory in the Phys Ed building, Dr. White will be studying human temperature ventilation and how it is controlled. He'd like to use volunteer divers in this study too, because divers coming up become adapted to elevated levels of carbon dioxide.

When the new environmental physiology lab is set up, Dr. White will be able to hire four master's students to assist with the experiments.

"The whole purpose is to set up a laboratory that's specific to the needs of Newfoundland, the fishing industry and offshore oil and gas and provide a future training environment for graduate students and post doctoral fellows so they can come in and specialize in this area. There are no laboratories on campus except Dr. David Behm's (also in Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics) and mine that are looking at human physiology in these conditions so it's also an opportunity for medical student and residents to participate in studies."