Fire Prevention 52: Oxygen—Vital for Life or Dangerous to Your Health

home oxygen tank
oxygen danger warning label

Approximately one million Medicare patients are on home oxygen therapy in the United States to improve their quality of life. As the population continues to age, oxygen therapy use in the home will rise. You may already be caring for someone who is on oxygen.

Why should you be concerned? Currently, home oxygen use is involved in 182 home fires, 46 deaths, and 60 injuries annually. Contrary to popular belief, oxygen by itself is not a flammable gas. Instead, oxygen is a powerful oxidizer that reacts vigorously with combustible materials, especially in its pure state, acting as an accelerant and causing a fire to spread faster.

Frightening as it may seem, anyone who has worked with the elderly or at a medical center has seen patients smoking with oxygen in tow. Amazingly, the occurrence is common and dangerous, not only to the patient but to everyone who may be in the immediate area. In an oxygen-rich environment, even a simple spark from static electricity can lead to volatile fire conditions that are dangerous to patients, their caregivers, and firefighters responding to the fire.

Keep the following in mind if you use oxygen in the home or as part of your job as an emergency medical responder:

  • Never smoke in an area where oxygen is in use.
  • Do not use open flames, candles, matches, or wood stoves in areas where oxygen is being used.
  • Turn oxygen off when it is not in use.
  • Do not let children play nearby with toys that give off sparks.
  • Keep petroleum-based products, such as lip balms, lotions, paint thinners, and rubbing alcohol, away from the oxygen.
  • Do not allow electrical equipment, such as electric razors, hair dryers, electric blankets, or electric heaters, to be used near oxygen.
  • Limit the storage of empty tanks.

Fire Info for You

Follow the safety information outlined above to ensure that you are operating safely where oxygen is being used.

Fires burn hotter and faster in oxygen-rich environments, and combustible materials such as hair, plastic, oils, clothing, and furniture catch fire at lower temperatures than usual. If you know oxygen therapy is being used in a residence, consider the location of the bottle currently in use, as well as spare and empty bottle storage. Factor that into your complete situational size-up of the fire.

Emergency Responders
Ensure that oxygen tanks used for emergency medical response are stored upright in a cart, rack, or stable base. Store tanks out of sunlight, in a well-ventilated space, and away from flames and heat sources. Do not use tanks that have fallen or are damaged. Always use a shoulder bag or wheeled cart when moving an oxygen tank for use.

Park Structural Fire Coordinators/Park Leadership
Ensure park standard operating procedures are in place for the proper use and storage of oxygen. Identify which buildings have residents using oxygen and ensure that safety precautions are in place.

Take Action

Post "NO SMOKING" signs inside and outside your home and anywhere oxygen is used.

NPS Fire Facts

The availability of portable oxygen tanks means visitors on oxygen therapy are more mobile today than ever before. Visitors are taking advantage of that mobility and touring the national parks in large numbers. Because it is not uncommon to see visitors using oxygen in restaurants, visitor centers, and at park programs, keep an eye out for potentially unsafe practices, such as living history reenactments, that may lead to fire or injury.

Last updated: November 2, 2016