Fire officials warn of oxygen-tank dangers

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / May 12, 2010

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Home oxygen equipment is a lifesaver. It allows patients with breathing problems to stay in their homes and lead a normal life. But like many other medical devices, it can be deadly if used incorrectly.

In Massachusetts, several fatal and near-fatal fires have moved officials to press local fire departments and hospitals to warn the public about the dangers of smoking around home oxygen equipment.

In Woburn on Monday, two men were hailed by fire officials for pulling a 61-year-old man from his burning apartment after the small, one-bedroom unit burst into flames.

Officials believe the victim had been smoking near his oxygen equipment.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Fire Services launched an educational campaign around the issue. State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said he considers the matter a priority.

“There is no good reason to smoke around oxygen,’’ Coan said. “These fires force whole families and other building tenants out of their homes, destroy a lifetime’s possessions, and cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage.’’

The fires can be especially deadly for residents and extremely dangerous to firefighters because fire needs oxygen to burn. The more oxygen there is in the air, the easier and more quickly everyday items — furniture, clothing, bedding — will burn. Normal air is about 21 percent oxygen, while home medical oxygen is 100 percent.

In Quincy, a woman died on Dec. 26 last year; fire officials said she was smoking a cigarette while using home oxygen. Donna Marani, 62, burned to death in a two-alarm fire in her high-rise apartment complex.

In her tiny apartment, the first thing that was visible was a sign on her door warning passersby that home oxygen was in use and that people should not smoke. But inside the apartment, the remains of a pack of cigarettes and a lighter were visible. On the floor, Marani’s oxygen unit was charred.

On May 16, 2009, a house fire burned so intensely that firefighters in full gear were unable to reach a 73-year-old grandmother in Whitman. Helena Drass died in a fire that was rapidly spread by her oxygen containers. Fire investigators believe she was smoking a cigarette while using her oxygen equipment.

“The fire was so intense, it did more damage in 10 minutes than most fires do in 30 minutes,’’ Whitman Fire Chief Timothy Grenno said at the time.

On Oct. 28, 2002, an 8-year-old girl died in another Massachusetts community when her father, a smoker with lung disease, dropped a cigarette while he was using home oxygen. The tank exploded, and the girl could not escape the home.

About 45 people die each year in the United States, and more than 1,000 are burned from fires fueled by home oxygen equipment, mostly caused by smoking, according to the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association.

Coan’s office circulates educational pamphlets to local fire departments, including a step-by-step guide teaching firefighters to educate residents on the dangers. Essentially, oxygen users are told they should not smoke and should stay away from candles, gas grilles, stoves, and any other open flames.

“This is an issue that is extremely dangerous in homes,’’ said Lorraine Carli, a spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association. “But like most fires and burns, they can be prevented by people taking some very simple steps.’’

Those steps, Coan said, are simple:

“You should not smoke. Your family and friends should not smoke around you. No one should smoke in your home. The fire danger is too great.’’

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at

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