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Effort combats fires fed by home oxygen

MGH, state start campaign to raise public awareness

Dr. Colleen Ryan ended a tour of the Massachusetts General Hospital burn unit for fire officials: from left, Chief Paul Zbikowski of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts Inc.; Kevin P. Partridge of the state Department of Fire Services; and Deputy Chief Michael A. Young of the Plymouth Fire Department and the Fire Prevention Association of Massachusetts. Dr. Colleen Ryan ended a tour of the Massachusetts General Hospital burn unit for fire officials: from left, Chief Paul Zbikowski of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts Inc.; Kevin P. Partridge of the state Department of Fire Services; and Deputy Chief Michael A. Young of the Plymouth Fire Department and the Fire Prevention Association of Massachusetts. (Photos By Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Elizabeth Cooney
Globe Correspondent / January 22, 2010

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Smoking and home oxygen make a dangerous combination, taking lives and causing injuries in numbers that may grow with the aging population, burn specialists and fire officials said as they launched a campaign yesterday to raise awareness among patients, caregivers, and health providers.

Twenty-four people have died in fires related to home oxygen use in Massachusetts since the Department of Fire Services began tracking such fires in 1997, including two last year.

The $13,000 campaign, organized by the state fire marshal’s office and Massachusetts General Hospital, will be funded by fines collected under the state’s 2008 fire-safe cigarette law, which banned the sale of cigarettes that do not automatically extinguish if left unattended.

Public service announcements on radio and television will point out that oxygen from tanks lingers in hair, clothing, and furniture after the flow is turned off. Products such as hair spray and ointments people use to salve their noses where oxygen tubing is placed are also flammable, leaving people who use oxygen especially vulnerable to facial burns.

“Everybody needs to understand that you can’t just shut off the oxygen and smoke,’’ Dr. Colleen Ryan, a Mass. General surgeon who cares for burn patients, said during a press conference at the hospital.

Nationally, an average of 200 home fires reported each year between 2003 and 2007 were related to oxygen use, resulting in an average of 63 deaths and 79 injuries, not including firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Marty Ahrens - manager of the group’s analysis services, based in Quincy - said the numbers probably underestimate these fires, because oxygen would not necessarily be listed as the cause of a fire if, for example, it was started by cooking.

Fires fueled by the 100 percent oxygen in home tanks burn hotter and quicker, endangering patients, household members, neighbors, and firefighters, said Stephen Coan, state fire marshal. He said he is concerned about the rising number of people using oxygen.

“It’s no longer a private health issue,’’ he said, citing a 1997 Brockton fire ignited by smoking near oxygen on the second floor of a three-decker that killed a woman trapped on the third floor. “It is a public health issue.’’

Some oxygen-related fires are caused by candles, heaters, or other appliances, but most are sparked by cigarettes.

Dr. Paul Currier, a lung specialist, urged doctors to talk to patients about quitting smoking, referring them to cessation programs that double their success rate by combining drug treatment with counseling. “I don’t think we do a good enough job on awareness’’ with patients on oxygen, he said.

Ryan said already fragile patients on oxygen suffer a cascade of medical problems if they fall victim to a fire. They lie in intensive care beds protected by clear plastic walls, unable to control their body temperature or humidity. They are susceptible to infection and damage to impaired lungs and other organs.

“This is so totally preventable,’’ she said in an intensive care unit where one of its eight beds is often filled by a patient involved in an oxygen-related fire.