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FDA says operating room fires are a persistent problem

Before surgery, you might worry about a lot things going wrong, but catching on fire is likely not one of them. Shockingly, operating room fires are something that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called a persistent problem, occurring about 550 to 650 times per year throughout the country.

In effort to reduce these accidents, which can lead to a severe burn injury, face disfigurement or even death, the FDA plans to kick off a Safety Initiative this fall to educate health-care professionals on how to prevent operating room fires.

In order for a surgical fire to occur, the FDA said that three factors must be present: an oxidizer, perhaps oxygen and nitrous oxide; an ignition source, including lasers, drills, and cauterizing devices; and a fuel, such as tracheal tubes, sponges and drapes.

Experts say that many people wrongly assume that alcohol is a fire hazard because it’s flammable, but in reality, only about 4 percent of surgical fires involve alcohol. Instead, experts say a more common culprit is oxygen, which is often on-hand in operating rooms.

“The high oxygen concentration can cause that fine body hair to be extremely flammable — a ripple of flames that spreads across the skin, traveling at 10 feet per second,” said a spokesman for an nonprofit group that tests medical devices and researches patient safety. “Oxygen makes other things a fuel.”

The spokesman said four recent cases of surgical fires his group researched were all caused by oxygen. In November, a 29-year-old woman was having surgery to remove cysts on her head when the cauterizing tool caught on fire after being fueled by her oxygen mask. The woman’s face burst into flames.

In another traumatic accident a year ago, a patient receiving a tracheotomy was severely burned after an electronic scalpel, which sparks, ignited the oxygen supply and caused a minor explosion. Finally, in May of last year, a 72-year-old woman suffered second-degree burns after an electrocautery device started surgical drapes on fire.

Following that fire, a nurse anesthetist was held negligent and liable for $250,000 in a medical malpractice lawsuit because he had administered extra oxygen, but did not inform the doctor. Luckily, medical malpractice lawsuits are able to provide victims of surgical fires with much-deserved compensation.

Source: KYPost, “FDA focusing on patients catching fire in operating rooms,” June 6, 2012