‘Retire the Fire!’ Using Home Oxygen Safely

By Tina Gorman, Executive Director Westfield Council On Aging

Home oxygen use has become increasingly popular among older adults as hospital stays have shortened in length and home healthcare services have advanced in recent years.  Oxygen is beneficial to those individuals with extreme breathing difficulties who are in need of supplemental oxygen therapy.  However precautions must be taken to keep both the person using the oxygen, as well as those living nearby, safe.

Under normal circumstances, room air contains approximately 21 percent oxygen.  When oxygen is used in the home, it can permeate into clothing, fabric, hair, beards, and furniture.  Contrary to popular belief, oxygen is not flammable, but it can cause other flammable materials to ignite more easily and to burn more quickly.  When more oxygen is in the air, hair, plastic, skin oils, clothing, and furniture can catch fire at lower temperatures.  And those fires will burn hotter and faster than usual.  Therefore, oxygen should always be handled with caution and an awareness of potential hazards.

It is important to keep home oxygen and tubing ten feet away from heat sources.  Common heat sources include matches, lighters, cigarettes, candles, gas stoves, appliances, electric razors, hair dryers, and heaters.  Flammable products such as oils, grease, petroleum products, and oil-based lip balms or lotions must be avoided.  Instead, water-based lubricants should be used on the lips and skin.

Smoking while using home oxygen is not just a personal health hazard, it is a public safety danger.  It puts everyone in the house or apartment building at risk.  A person should never smoke while using oxygen.  A “No Smoking” sign should be posted at a prominent place at the entrance of the home.  Visitors should be encouraged to smoke outside.

Oxygen cylinders and vessels should be kept in a well-ventilated area and not in closets, behind curtains, in the trunk of a car, or in other confined spaces.  The small amount of oxygen gas that is continually vented from these units can accumulate in a confined space and become a fire hazard.  Oxygen cylinders and vessels must remain upright at all times.  They should be secured to a fixed object or placed in a stand with the oxygen concentrator plugged into a properly grounded wall outlet.  The cylinder valve should be turned off when the oxygen is not in use.

If precautions are not taken, the dangers of home oxygen use are genuine.  Cigarette smoking is by far the leading cause of burns, reported fires, deaths, and injuries involving home medical oxygen, with ninety percent of the victims suffering facial burns.  Cooking and candles are other common factors.  Westfield Acting Fire Chief Patrick Egloff warns, “When more oxygen is in the air, fires will burn hotter and faster.”  Home oxygen use can be a lifesaver if utilized properly.  However, it can also be a fire risk for users, family members, neighbors, and pets if basic fire safety precautions are ignored.

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