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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Commodified Oxygen

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Miriam Landman tells us about her first visit to a new bar in San Francisco – one that serves up oxygen instead of alcohol.


CURWOOD: Hindsight, they say, is twenty-twenty. And for critical issues such as air quality, commentator Miriam Landman hopes hindsight and foresight will win out over our typically shortsighted perspective. She brings us this wake-up call from the future.


LANDMAN: It’s a typical morning in the year 2020. I get ready for work by climbing into my full-body bubble suit. I zip it up and glance in the mirror to make sure my oxygen tank is on straight. Sound absurd? Well, we already buy bottled water, and we pay more for it than for gasoline. And on smoggy days we reach for our inhalers. And now, some of us even duck into an oxygen bar for a 20-minute hit of pure, unadulterated air.

The first time I heard of an oxygen spa, I was skimming through a magazine. There was an ad featuring a model with clear plastic tubes inserted into her nostrils. The ad was for the “O2 Spa Bar,” a stylish Toronto salon offering "oxygen sessions" for $16 a pop. The ad stated: "It may sound weird at first. But think about how much smog and car exhaust you breathe into your lungs every day."

Well, that certainly is something to think about. Unfortunately, instead of actually solving that problem, oxygen bars have sprung up all over the world— first in smoggy Asian cities like Tokyo, where there are also coin-operated oxygen booths on the streets, and later in Europe and North America. So when an air bar opened up in my fair city of San Francisco, I just had to go check it out.

[MUSIC: Telepopmusik “Breathe (Extended Mix) Breathe {CD-Single} Emi Int’l (2002)]

It was a long, dimly lit room that felt like a cocktail lounge. Twenty-something hipsters were lounging around on pleather couches, while a DJ spun ambient techno music. I sidled up to the bar and perused the menu of aromatherapy oxygen blends with names like Euphoric, Release, and Relax. I ordered a dose of Release from the bartender, and I asked him if I was about to get high. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” he said. “It just makes you feel better. And it lasts longer than the feeling you’d get from drinking a beer.”

Soon, I was hooked up a tank of the herbal oxygen concoction. There was a tube in my nose. I can’t say I felt as glamorous as I would had I been holding a martini, and I can’t say it actually did anything for me - other than inject the scent of Lavender into my nasal passage. But that’s not surprising, since there’s no sound evidence that oxygen spa treatments are at all effective in cleaning pollutants out of our lungs.

The original website for Woody Harrelson's Los Angeles oxygen bar declared: “Up your nose with a rubber hose” and “join the rest of society who laughed at the idea of bottled water.” It is hard to take oxygen bars seriously, but the implications are serious, as serious as a heart attack. Medical studies have found that breathing dirty air can actually trigger fatal heart attacks in people with cardiac problems. And roughly 17 million people, in the U.S. alone, suffer from asthma. That’s three times as many as there were twenty years ago.

Recently, I read a magazine blurb about a new high-fashion jacket that came equipped with a smog-filtering mask attached to its hood. Jackets with breathing masks and oxygen-hocking establishments, to my mind, belong in a bleak, futuristic, sci-fi world. But while we were sleeping, the future arrived. The surreal is now the real. So I can’t help but wonder: What’s next?

CURWOOD: Miriam Landman is a freelance writer and a green building consultant with Simon & Associates in San Francisco.


CURWOOD: Just ahead: A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sound can make you speechless. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.




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