Working in permanent hypoxia for fire protection—impact on health

Original Article



A new technique to prevent fires is continuous exchange of oxygen with nitrogen which leads to an oxygen concentration of between 15% and 13% in the ambient air. This paper reviews the effect of short-term, intermittent hypoxia on health and performance of people working in such atmospheres.


We reviewed the effect of ambient air hypoxia on human health in the literature using Medline, as well as reference lists of articles and handbooks. Articles were assessed from the perspective of working conditions in fire-protected rooms.


Oxygen reduced to 15% and 13% in normobaric atmospheres is equivalent to the hypobaric atmospheres found at 2,700 and 3,850-m altitudes. When acutely exposed, a healthy person responds within minutes to hours with increased ventilation, stimulation of the sympathetic system, increased heart rate, increased pulmonary-circulation resistance, reduced plasma volume, and stimulation of erythropoesis. Acute mountain sickness occurs frequently at these oxygen partial pressures, but the full syndrome is rare if continuous exposure is limited to 6 h. Mood, cognitive, and psychomotor functions may be mildly impaired in these conditions, but data are inconclusive. Persons suffering from cardiac, pulmonary, or hematological diseases should consult a specialist in order for their individual risk to be assessed, and medical screening for any of these diseases is strongly recommended prior to exposure.


Preliminary evidence suggests that working environments with low oxygen concentrations to a minimum of 13% and normal barometric pressure do not impose a health hazard, provided that precautions are observed, comprising medical examinations and limitation of exposure time. However, evidence is limited, particularly with regard to workers performing strenuous tasks or having various diseases. Therefore, close monitoring of the health problems of people working in low oxygen atmospheres is necessary.


Fire protection Normobaric hypoxia Acute mountain sickness Brain function Coronary artery disease 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute and Outpatient Clinic for Occupational and Environmental MedicineLudwig-Maximilians-UniversityMunichGermany

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