Chandlery June 2002 Issue

First-Class Aid For First-Aid Kits

Here is the System O2 kit, all packed and
ûready to stow.
Interested in something that, during an emergency aboard your boat, might save a life?

It's called System O2™, a simple kit that permits you to carry and to stow easily the means to administer concentrated oxygen. If you don't get too flustered, the oxygen can be produced in as little as a minute, about as quick as setting up a pressurized cylinder (which is the traditional way to carry this life-giving gas).

Of the 2,500 gallons of air you breathe in each day, only about 20% is oxygen; the rest is largely nitrogen and gaseous forms of other things like hops and Italian sausage. You can live for weeks without food, maybe 9 or 10 days without water. But without oxygen, you'll go planetary in 4 to 6 minutes.

Who needs concentrated oxygen? Here's a quote from The Ship’s Medicine Chest and Medical Aid at Sea, a book published by the Bureau of Medical Advice in the Health Services Administration of the Public Health Service, which is part of the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and if you stop to read the title page it may already be too late. The book, a reference for ships that do not carry a physician, states: "Oxygen may be indicated for respiratory diseases, cardiac diseases, poisoning from gases, massive hemorrhage and shock." Also included are near-drowning and injuries, especially to the head.

The American Medical Association’s view is: "The highest concentration of oxygen should be administered to... anyone with suspected hypoxia, regardless of cause."

As EMTs, administering oxygen is (almost) never a bad idea in any medical emergency or trauma situation. The acute need for more oxygen is indicated by cyanosis (bluish color to skin); dyspnea (short, shallow breathing); a rapid, uneven pulse, and any form of shock or serious trauma.

So, anyone aboard your boat acting dippy or turning blue could probably benefit from a prolonged snort of oxygen.

Unless there are special needs, few boats carry cylinders of oxygen. They are expensive, heavy containers of compressed gas, and that gas can be dangerous, not because it's flammable, as many people think, but because it's a flame accelerant—it turbocharges any open flame that mingles with it. (Oxygen being so necessary for combustion, that's maybe why tabloids and television still milk some mileage out of the weird notion that human bodies can burst into flame.)

Because pressurized cylinders have the potential, if damaged or a valve fails, to release huge amounts of oxygen, people are justifiably wary of them.

The new System O2 delivers the gas with no pressure, by making it on the spot. At the heart of the system is a clever multi-chambered tank in which is stored a pre-filled bottle of water (any will do, but distilled keeps the best). The kit includes four large cans of sodium percarbonate and four small cans of a manganese compound that the manufacturer says is a proprietary potion presently proceeding through the patent process. It's the sodium mixture that contains the oxygen elements set free by the manganese, which is a metallic element similar to iron.

One can each of the two chemicals, mixed with the water, begin immediately to produce oxygen, which bubbles up into a clear plastic dome on the top of the tank, then into a tube, and from there into either a cannula (the gizmo that drapes over your ears, with little tube stubs that fit loosely into your nostrils), or a mask.

What takes place in the tank is called "thermal decomposition," which releases oxygen.

The tank expels 98% pure oxygen for 15 or so minutes, at a peak rate of 8 or 9 liters a minute. The face mask, ("medium concentration") has ventilating holes, and is designed to dilute that to about 50% oxygen. The nasal cannula could be used if the patient was uncomfortable with the mask. The kit comes with three additional containers of the chemicals; all you need is water.

The instructions (in the booklet and again on the tank) are crystal clear and the only slightly tricky part is that you must fill the top of the two-chambered tank with water before pouring the rest in the main part of the tank, after which you dump in the white powder and then the dark gray powder. You don’t even have to stir it.

It all packs securely, refills and all, in a well-made, compartmented canvas bag that has the System O2 embroidered label and, in even larger white letters, the word "Oxygen."

Practical Sailor made a couple of batches. It was easy. The oxygen, when breathed through the mask, is not detectable. When inhaled straight from the little hole in the top of the tank, the gas has a slight bite (a little like soda water fumes) that produced a throat tickle. With the tank top removed, the chemicals can be seen bubbling quite vigorously. Whatever's going on, the mixture makes some noticeable heat, The gray liquid that is left (mostly soda ash and manganese) is environmentally benign. Clean-up is just a rinse and dry.

When asked what would happen if the oxygen did contact an open flame, an officer of the company said: "We've never tried that."

Well, just for kicks, Practical Sailor did. It should be noted emphatically that, like electricity and water, oxygen and an open flame are dangerous. Further, stated on the System O2 cardboard box and on the tank (but peculiarly not in the instruction booklet) is the clear warning, "Keep all smoking materials and open flames away when the system is in use."

For the curious, the question is: What exactly happens if you foul up, forget, or even deliberately set out to flaunt the warning to see how serious the penalty is? It would be good to know if it would blow up the boat, burn the patient's lungs or just scare the blazes out of you.

Even knowing that oxygen doesn't explode itself, we wondered what would happen if a flame were introduced to the flow of O2 coming out of the system.

We did our little experiment outdoors in darkness, to make sure any flame would be visible.

We taped some wood matches to a long pole, then extended the the 6' of 3/16" clear plastic tubing along the ground, with mask attached. We then mixed up a new batch of the O2 brew, set it bubbling, and attached the tube. After waiting three minutes to be certain the oxygen production had reached a peak level, we fired up the matches and put the flame into the mask hollow.

Although plenty of attempts were made with several matches, the oxygen being emitted from the mask didn't even seem to make the flame glow brighter. The oxygen, as it left the hole at the mask, probably was diluted too quickly to burn.

Finally, the tubing was disconnected at the tank and a lighted match was placed near the little aperture out of which hissed the perhaps purer oxygen. Although nothing happened for five or six seconds, suddenly there was a bright, cone-shaped flame, about 3" tall and a half-dollar wide at its thickest point.

After burning just short of two minutes, the cone-shaped flame suddenly vanished, but was replaced simultaneously inside the dome. Much less intense than the original flame, the little bursts inside the dome appeared to be tiny balls of fire supported by oxygen bubbling up from the still working chemical mixture. This lasted only briefly. It appeared that the flame caught a lull in the bubble production and went out.

As shown in the photo, the first flame melted the center of the dome, which dropped the flame down into the second compartment and melted some plastic there, too.

The chemical mix, covered with soot and ash, continued to produce oxygen for about 10 minutes or so. It was reassuring to see the lengths to which one would have to go to create a dangerous situation with this set-up on board.

PS can easily recommend System O2 for cruising crews who want a more complete emergency medical aresenal on board, or who might have special medical concerns. Oxygen delivered at 8-9 liters per minute for 15 minutes can make a big difference in an emergency.

Like most medical gear, this system will be much more likely to make a real difference in an emergency if you take time to familiarize yourself with it before you need it in a rush.

System O2 sells for $150 all up. A set of four refills costs $25. It's available from Oxygen Delivery Systems, 804 Front St., Suite B, McHenry, IL 60050, 800/358-3852,

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