Portable Oxygen: A User's Perspective

Oxygen Safety

Introduction Packing for Safety
Fire User Liability
Inherent Dangers User Comments

Portable Oxygen: A User's Perspective
Oxygen Safety

The information here provided is for educational purposes only and it is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult your own physician or healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.   

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I have been on oxygen therapy for the past four years. During those years I have brought into my home, car, and RV containers of both liquid and compressed oxygen. I also have a concentrator in my RV. I have been rather casual about the safe handling of oxygen. I have felt that because it is not flammable that it posed little risk. 

Two recent events in my life have wakened me from my casualness. I will tell the story of each of these as I also tell you about the "why" of the oxygen safety tips we need to be aware of. 

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Bill died a short time ago of COPD. Although I did not know him personally, his son and I had frequent conversations about him. Bill, like me, was on oxygen. Unlike me, he continued to smoke and was in denial, unwilling to stop smoking. By smoking with oxygen present, he nearly took his own life as well as the lives of his wife and son. 

It was one evening that he stayed in the living room of his town house after his son and wife went to sleep upstairs. About 2 a.m. his son awoke to cries from his father. He woke his mother, and the two raced down stairs through billows of smoke that came from the room where his father was still seated in his burning chair. The son pulled his father from the chair and carried him to safety. For this, he received third degree burns to the back of his arms. No lives were lost but the town house was a complete loss and so was all their personal property. 

Not being there, I can only speculate on what happened. Bill probably took the cannula off and laid it on the chair. The oxygen enriched the normally flame-retardant chair covering. As he dozed his cigarette fell on the chair, causing it to ignite. 

Listen to what the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) reported in the March 2001 issue of Sentinel Events . Sentinel Events no longer appears at the JCAHO website, so here is the article.

Since April 1997, 11 fires occurred in the homes of patients on oxygen therapy. Patients in seven of these fires died. In the remaining four fires, patients were permanently disfigured. 

All these patients were receiving supplemental oxygen service and were over the age of 65. Cigarette smoking was the contributing factor in all these fires. 

Investigators found the following risk factors common to most of the fires: 

  • The patient lived alone.
  • Smoke detectors were absent or non-functional.
  • Patient had cognitive impairment.
  • Patient had a documented history of smoking while oxygen was running.
  • Patient wore flammable clothing.
  Reported in the July 2000 issue of Home Medical Equipment News is what happened to a 59 year old Nova Scoita smoker who was caught smoking with oxygen. Since publishing this item, HME News has closed its site to all of us who cannot come up with $65 a year, so here it is.

Smoker denied O2 benefits

Nova Scota 2004. In May, Nova Scotia's Health Department said it would no longer provide an asthma sufferer $240 a month to rent a concentrator and equipment for back up oxygen. The reason: A homecare worker caught him smoking, which is against the rules.

 After being caught smoking, Vernon Hughes, 59, a former three-pack a day smoker who can't afford to pay for his own equipment, promised the Nova Scotia's Health Department that he wouldn't smoke anymore. The department didn't budge, saying there is no guarantee he'll live up to that promise. The no smoking rule is in place as a safety measure and explained fully to beneficiaries.

Smoker's home destroyed and neighbor injured

Kalispell MO, 15 July 2004 A home on Kalispell's west side was extensively damaged Wednesday morning by a fire that was probably started by a cigarette and was accelerated by oxygen from medical oxygen tanks.

A neighbor, who was trying to help was knocked down by the explosion of one oxygen tank, which also caused temporary hearing loss for a police officer.

The resident of the burning house suffered burned hands while trying to remove materials from the home. She went to the neighbor for help.

Nine Kalispell firefighters arrived with two fire engines and an ambulance. They discovered flames coming from the windows and eaves and menacing a neighboring home.

A report by F. Ray Ruffatto of the fire department's prevention division said that while the exact cause of the fire is still undetermined, "initial investigation indicates the fire may be the result of carelessly discarded smoking materials."

The home will be uninhabitable for an indefinite period of time.

Smoker dies in house fire

Hudson MA 21 july 2004--The victim of yestrerday's fire died after suffering second- and third-degree burns from a devastating blaze at her Manning Street home Sunday.
The resident was a smoker, according to State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan, and he said the combination of cigarettes and the multiple oxygen tanks in the home either caused or exacerbated the fire.
She was in critical condition after being pulled from the house by a neighbor and then died yesterday at UMass Memorial Medical Center, University Campus in Worcester.
The inside of the house was ruined, as well as some of the outside.
Twenty-four firefighters responded and one was treated for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
The combination of oxygen tanks and cigarettes have sparked fires that since 1997 have killed 16 people in the state and caused severe burns or smoke inhalation in 20, said Coan.

Smoking shortens oxygen patient's life

Jamestown, NY 26 July 2004--A fire in the Jamestown Hotel killed a senior citizen and forced at least 100 other seniors to evacuate Sunday morning. The fire started in a fourth floor apartment. The resident was on medical oxygen and was apparently smoking, causing the blaze to rip through a building that is home to many senior citizens..

Parts of the building are still damaged, but most people were able to return to their homes Sunday.

Oxygen is Not Flammable

Unlike other gases and chemicals, oxygen is not flammable. It is classified as an accelerator, meaning that if there is a fire and oxygen is present, the fire will burn. The more oxygen, the larger the fire and the faster it will spread. We are use to seeing fires burn in an atmosphere containing about 21 percent oxygen. This is the atmosphere in which most materials are tested for safety, such as the covering of the chair in the above story. But when oxygen is flowing near such material, the material absorbs the oxygen and becomes more susceptible to burning. 

So, I am now more aware that the oxygen I cannot see has a presence, not only in my nostrils but all around me. My clothing and my hair contain more oxygen than that of a person not on oxygen. 

Knowing this, I understand more fully the "five foot rule" and stay at least this distance away from sources of sparks and flames. I keep my concentrator and store both liquid and compressed oxygen containers at least five feet from any source of flames or spark. 

I do not lean over a lighted gas stove with my cannula on; I no longer blow out the candles on my birthday cake; I no longer do the outdoor grilling; and I let others hold my candle during Christmas church services. In general, I do not put myself in a position where I am too close to an existing fire. 

I do not permit a cigarette to be lit near me. I do not permit smoking in the rooms where I normally use oxygen. The hidden danger here is that a hot ash could smolder for a long time before flaming up, as I remember it did in my home when I was very young. I do not work with paint remover or other flammable products.

More Fires Accelerated by Oxygen

Fire damages west-side home

By Chery Sabol
The Daily Inter Lake

A home on Kalispell's west side was extensively damaged Wednesday morning by a fire that was probably started by a cigarette and fed by oxygen from medical oxygen tanks.

The explosion of one oxygen tank knocked down Darin Bohland, a neighbor who was trying to help, and caused temporary hearing loss for a police officer.

Bohland's house next door to the fire also was damaged.

A neighbor reported the fire in a home in the 500 block of Second Avenue West at about 2:30 a.m. The resident of the burning house suffered burned hands while trying to remove materials from the home. She went to the neighbor for help.

Nine Kalispell firefighters arrived with two fire engines and an ambulance. They discovered flames coming from the windows and eaves Oxygen Without Nose Hoses

2007 Copyright 
Peter M. Wilson, Ph.D. 
Founder of PortableOxygen.org

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Last Modified: December 26, 2013

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