In India and Iraq, patients recently died in hospital fires caused by excessive oxygen – why is oxygen so dangerous?
This is due to an increase in oxygen-rich environments, with massive tanks storing what patients need to keep their lungs functioning. The people who are caught up in these blasts are almost always hospitalised COVID patients, who are seeking ICU treatment.
Tragically, the environment that is created to save them, is also at risk of killing them.
On 19 December 2020, a fire killed 10 patients in Turkey, while a similar fire killed 10 patients in Romania. Both fires broke out in the ICU, due to a high flow oxygen ventilation device.
Why is an oxygen so dangerous?
Oxygen is 21% of the air we breathe – but if it goes up, even to 24%, the ratio in the air becomes a fire hazard. The air itself becomes flammable.
A leak, from between a tube to a patient, can begin to saturate the air with excess oxygen. In some hospitals, where resources are scarcer than in others, the healthcare team are focused on the tangible horrors of COVID-19. But when materials are easier to ignite, and the fires burn fiercely due to the fuel in the very air, the crisis of the pandemic can become a double-horror in an instant.
How do these ICU fires start?
The pandemic has resulted in some unprecedented changes, due to necessity, in how hospitals organise themselves. There has been an increase in oxygen ventilators in ICUs where possible, as COVID patients end up there in a life or death battle most often.
However, this increase in ventilators means an increase in electrical demand.
This demand can overload the electrical supply systems. In addition, infectious units are somewhat sealed in air exchange. For good reason, there is not much air circulating in and out of a place that houses viral pathogens. But this allows oxygen-rich atmospheres to grow and grow. This is why most of the hospital fires happen in ICU. The rest happen where oxygen tanks are stored.
In October, 2020, more than 150 patients were evacuated from a dormitory that was being used as a temporary COVID hospital in Chelyabinsk, Russia – because of a fire in the oxygen storage room that spread to the rest of the building.