A recent article in i09.com described a reality that may surprise some passengers. In short, the passenger emergency oxygen system used in some airliners may generate small amounts of toxic chemicals in addition to oxygen. While that may sound a bit scary, the risks to passenger is rather low.
Two types of systems
Passenger emergency oxygen systems provide oxygen from either a centralized oxygen supply system that supplies the oxygen to every passenger, or it is supplied by a chemical oxygen generator that provides oxygen for a small number of masks. Depending on the generator, it may contain a combination of chemicals, which may include sodium chlorate, potassium perchlorate, barium peroxide, or iron powder, that when activated give off oxygen as a byproduct of a chemical reaction.
Chemical oxygen generator hazards
The greatest risks from chemical oxygen generators is the heat that they may generate. However, airliners are designed to take this into account. The other basic risk is exposure to some of the byproducts from the chemical reaction. While the oxygen is filtered before reaching a passenger, is it possible that the trace amounts of chemical byproducts that remain may affect a passenger.
Hypoxia is a condition where the human body is deprived of sufficient oxygen needed for normal bodily function. Hypoxia affects the central nervous system, and those effects may range from impaired judgment and decision making capability, to unconsciousness and death. In an aircraft that has lost cabin pressure while flying at high altitudes, the easiest way to prevent hypoxia is to breathe oxygen from the emergency oxygen system until the aircraft can descend to a lower altitude.
More on hypoxia
You can find an overview of hypoxia risks on AirSafe.com. If you are interested in the effects of hypoxia on pilots and passengers, you may want to check out this hypoxia overview from the FAA.
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Photo credit - David Monniaux