Author(s): Marty Ahrens. Published on January 1, 2009.

National Statistics on Home Burns and Fires Associated with Medical Oxygen Use

NFPA Journal®, January/February 2009

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) collects details about injuries treated in a sample of hospital emergency rooms, data that’s used to create estimates of the frequency of specific injuries or circumstances. Based on a search  for “oxygen” or “O2” in the narrative fields of NEISS cases involving thermal burns, from 2003 to 2006, 1,190 people, on average, were seen per year at U.S. hospital emergency rooms for thermal burns incurred in homes with medical oxygen. In addition:

  • Forty-three percent were either admitted or transferred to another hospital, 2 percent were held for further observation, and 55 percent were either treated and released or released without being treated.
  • Eighty-nine percent of the victims suffered facial burns. 
  • Smoking materials were involved in 73 percent of the medical oxygen-related burns. Burns related to medical oxygen accounted for 16 percent of all burns involving smoking materials. Stoves or ovens were involved in 10 percent of the oxygen-related burns and candles in 9 percent. Two percent of patients were burned while lighting gas grills. Another two percent of the burns occurred when the victims were using grinding equipment.
  • For the vast majority of such burns, local fire departments are never contacted.

NFPA estimates that from 2002 to 2005, oxygen administration equipment was involved in an average of 182 home fires reported to local fire departments per year, resulting in an average of 46 civilian deaths and 60 civilian injuries per year. When medical oxygen equipment was involved, one of every four reported home fires resulted in death. Forty-five percent of the non-fatal injuries were categorized as minor, 36 percent as moderate, and 15 percent as life-threatening. Smoking materials were the heat sources in more than half of these fires and injuries, and in three-quarters of the deaths. Matches and lighters may have been used for smoking-related activities or for other purposes. Hot embers or ashes provided the heat in 9 percent of the fires and injuries, and arcing was the heat source in 5 percent of these fires, 18 percent of the deaths, and 4 percent of the injuries.

The area around an oxygen user that becomes saturated with oxygen may be quite small, but any fire in that area will burn hotter and faster than a fire that is not oxygen-enriched. Only 22 percent of all home fire deaths resulted from fires in which flame damage was limited to the room of origin, but 59 percent of the deaths from fires involving home oxygen equipment resulted from fires with this limited damage.

These numbers may be underestimates. A survey of fire departments in New York State for a 2006 U.S. Fire Administration Executive Fire Officer class found that one-third of the responding departments had experienced at least one fire involving home oxygen in the previous 24 months, with a total of 152 fires. Only 18 percent of the responding departments had any kind of program to track usage and storage of home oxygen, and none of the programs was mandatory.

The NEISS database can be accessed at www.cpsc.gov/library/neiss.html.