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Expert: Oxygen generators
should be safe cargo

May 15, 1996
Web posted at: 9:45 p.m. EDT

oxygen generator

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- An expert said Wednesday that oxygen generator bottles should be safe to ship as cargo, but admitted they heat up to 1200 degrees inside the canister when activated. The generators have been implicated in a fire that destroyed a jet in Chicago in 1986.

According to American Chemical Society expert Dr. J. Wilson Mausteller, oxygen generators have been used for decades, and should be safe to ship as cargo. Mausteller says it would be difficult to ignite the canisters, even in an explosion.

Mausteller

In combustion tests, he has fired on them with rifles and even tossed them into wood fires.

Each canister is about the size of a hair spray can.

Mausteller acknowledges one of the devices caused the loss of a plane at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. In 1986, an American Trans Air DC-10 was destroyed after an oxygen generator was somehow activated. The airplane was in a hangar and no one was aboard.

1986 incident

Mausteller says he suspects the insulated device caused a fire because the rubber tubes and mask were tightly coiled against the hot canister.

The generators are stored in compartments overhead or behind seats, and are heavily insulated to keep fires from starting. Mausteller says a strong pull is required to yank out the pin that would activate the oxygen device.

Oxygen generators contain sodium chlorate and iron powder -- solid chemicals that are mixed and cast into a solid shape.

The U.S. Navy uses them to generate oxygen in submarines. They call them oxygen candles, and each candle burns for about 45 minutes, producing enough oxygen for 100 men. The chemical reaction producing the oxygen is started at one end with either a hot wire and power or a small cap. The tube of chemicals burns like a candle, producing oxygen as it goes.

The canisters on board the ValuJet plane were in a hold that also contained a few fully pressurized tires.

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