Under water, a scuba diver is subjected to added pressure. In shallow water the pressure difference is not so great, and one can simply use compressed air to breathe. However, at a depth of 300 feet, a diver experiences nearly 10 times normal atmospheric pressure. Under these conditions, breathing compressed air can be harmful. The increased pressure requires an inert gas to be used to dilute oxygen.
Oxygen is essential for breathing, above and beneath the surface. However, one can get too much of it. Under high pressures, greater amounts of oxygen enter into the bloodstream. If the concentration becomes too high, oxygen poisoning can result, with symptoms that include confusion, impaired vision and nausea. So, under high pressures, oxygen must be diluted with some other gas.
Nitrogen is very abundant and relatively inert, but it cannot be used to dilute oxygen in scuba tanks. At the elevated pressures experienced by divers, larger amounts of nitrogen will dissolve in the blood causing nitrogen narcosis. Dissolved nitrogen also can cause a painful condition, called "the bends" if a diver makes too rapid an ascent. As the pressure decreases, the dissolved gas can form bubbles that can stop circulation in capillaries and damage the nervous system.