Durham’s fire marshal has ordered two businesses to stop offering an increasingly popular wellness service called “mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy,” which has been advertised by purveyors as an antidote to everything from aging to cancer.
A growing number of fire marshals across the state and the country are doing the same as physicians who specialize in hyperbaric medicine work to flag fire and health risks. At its recent meeting, the American Medical Association resolved to work with regulators to facilitate a crackdown on the therapy.
Raleigh and Charlotte issued cease and desist letters to a combined four businesses in June after a top North Carolina fire code official concluded that the hyperbaric chambers used by Restore Hyper Wellness, a fast-growing company with coast-to-coast franchises, were not in compliance with safety standards, The News & Observer previously reported.
Durham followed this week, issuing cease and desist letters to a Restore location on Ninth Street in Old West Durham and bR3 Studio on Fayetteville Road near The Streets at Southpoint, Fire Marshal Jody Morton said.
Also this week, Brunswick County ordered a Shallotte business, The Holistic Anti-Aging Spa, to stop offering the service, according to that county’s fire marshal, Andrew Thompson.
The fire marshal in Asheville, Kelly Hinz, said Thursday that she is studying the issue. At least two businesses in that city offer the service, according to their websites.
The businesses under scrutiny defend their safety record.
“Restore has provided over 130,000 mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy sessions to clients without incident, and is happy to collaborate with the city and state to ensure protocols continue to provide safety,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement to The News & Observer.
The owner of The Holistic Anti-Aging Spa, Rebecca Rhodes, said Friday that she has been using soft-sided hyperbaric chambers with clients for decades.
“Over the 20 years that I’ve been using them, nothing has ever happened, “ Rhodes said, adding that she was shocked that fire marshals would intervene in what she viewed as a competitive dispute.
bR3 Studio did not immediately respond to an email or a voicemail requesting comment on Friday.
What is ‘mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy’?
The “mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy” sold by wellness companies is not the same as the medical therapy provided in hard-shelled chambers.
Medical hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used treat the bends in scuba divers, radiation injuries in cancer patients and stubborn wounds in people with diabetes.
The “mild” therapy involves lower pressures in soft-sided chambers that look like a giant duffle bag that a person climbs inside.
The FDA has not approved these devices for use with oxygen tanks or with the oxygen concentrators commonly in use at wellness centers.
The fire risk comes from oxygen under pressure.
“When you are in a hyperbaric environment, you’re essentially turbo charging the oxidizer,” one of three ingredients necessary for a fire, along with fuel and heat, said Rachel Lance, a biomedical engineer and researcher at the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology.
“When a fire occurs in a hyperbaric chamber, it’s less of a fire and more of an explosion, so they almost always have some level of fatality,” she said.
Restore has argued to regulators that the standards that apply to other hyperbaric chambers should not apply to them, in part because their offerings do not constitute medical treatment.
Charlie Johnson, North Carolina’s chief fire code consultant, hasn’t been persuaded.
He said in an interview that he would be willing to change his opinion if Restore presented him with formal interpretations from the National Fire Protection Association and American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which sets standards for pressure vessels.
So far the company has not provided those documents, Johnson said.
Some fire officials in Georgia, Utah, Virginia, Michigan and Indiana have taken a similar position, said Tom Workman, who for many years tracked the proliferation of soft-shelled chambers as part of his work in quality assurance for the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society.
The FDA recommends checking with your health care provider before seeking hyperbaric oxygen therapy and to use facilities that have been inspected and accredited by the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society.
The agency has approved soft-shelled chambers only for treatment of altitude sickness.
All other uses are “off label” and may lack scientific proof, the FDA warned in a consumer update published last year.