Is Oxygen a Fire Safety Risk?

Is Oxygen a Fire Safety Risk?

Currently, the world as we know it is being controlled by a micro-organism, the tiny enveloped virus that is delivering immense damage to our health, our population and our economy. Coronavirus is being breathed into the airways of thousands, reducing their ability to obtain the essential molecule to sustain life. To free up the much-needed beds, swathes of stabilised infected patients are being released out of the hospitals to their homes with an oxygen supply and masks to continue their therapy and to enable them to survive, but is the oxygen they are taking out a fire safety risk in the home?

Oxygen is essential to life as a human being. There are many micro-organisms that can survive without it but for us, we will die within minutes. A range of severe medical conditions can lead to patients requiring long term oxygen supply, breathed in through a facial mask. Breathing diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); pulmonary fibrosis; heart failure; severe long-term asthma; pulmonary hypertension; cystic fibrosis and breathing problems caused by a combination of being obese and having an underlying condition, all add to the numbers of patients requiring oxygen. The coronavirus is unfortunately now greatly adding to this home supply due to the ability to damage the lungs causing severe shortness of breath and ‘silent hypoxia’ in some patients. The effects of ‘long covid’ on the body may also continue to increase numbers over time.

The body utilises the oxygen breathed in through our lungs for aerobic respiration, a process in the body that allows energy to be released and fed to all our cells and to the vital organs to keep us alive. Glucose (a sugar) and oxygen react together in the cells of our body producing carbon dioxide and water. This process releases the energy required. When the body’s ventilation system prevents the breathing in of oxygen through damaged lungs or constricted airways, this vital process cannot occur. Within minutes of being starved of oxygen, serious and irreversible brain damage can occur ultimately leading to death.

Reacting with most materials, oxygen is classed as highly reactive, but it is not in itself flammable. However, it is one of the three elements required in the fire triangle. If there is a greater concentration of oxygen in the surrounding environment, the fire will ignite easier, it will burn much more vigorously and the temperature of the flames will be greater- increasing the risk of more severe burns. This is why home oxygen with a face mask or nasal tube attached to an oxygen concentrator or cylinder is a fire safety risk. The supplier of the home oxygen should always be consulted on such risks and how best to handle the equipment.

If you are using portable oxygen cylinders attached to a mask, which can be carried around as they weigh around 2kg, the fire risks may still be the same. The same precautions should be taken as when the oxygen is being used at home, be aware of the possible hazards around you – in the supermarket or people in the street smoking – they don’t know the fire risks.

To ensure you use the oxygen safely at home you must adhere to some golden rules:

  • Ensure you have a fully functioning smoke detector in the home
  • Inform the local fire service that you are using oxygen at home
  • Make sure you are at least three metres away from any open flame when using your breathing mask with oxygen
  • Keep a 1.5-metre distance from any electrical appliances
  • Do not smoke – not only is this a fire risk, this is detrimental to oxygen therapy. Consider also the risks of e-cigarettes, these are a fire hazard too!
  • Do not use any oil-based emollient creams or other flammable liquids when breathing in from your oxygen supply: water-based gels should always be used as a lubricant for nasal tubing.

All of the above precautions should be taken when using a mask to breathe oxygen at home. However, all general fire safety risks at home should be considered at all times and expert advice should always be sought. Being prepared with a planned escape route and having the correct fire safety equipment such as gloves or fire safety masks accessible in the home could be a decision made now that saves a loved one’s life in future.