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Spring Hill puts on pure airs

(ran PW edition)

The bar inside the new Tiger Hut Pampering Salon has a rarified air about it.

Oxygen, that is.

Sniffing concentrated, flavored oxygen, a fad that has swept through several big cities, has just arrived in Spring Hill. A few dozen Hernando County residents have already paid to breathe at the 2-week-old oxygen bar, which is tucked behind Friendly Car Wash on U.S. 19.

The experience entails sitting in a comfortable leather recliner in a dark room, listening to soft music and breathing oxygen through a nose piece hooked to a thin tube. The oxygen comes in any number of flavored concoctions, including pumpkin pie, vanilla bean and juniper berry.

"It's healthy, and it's invigorating," said Linda Sievers, 45, of Spring Hill, a customer who does 20-minute daily treatments, which she says helps her allergies.

Oxygen bars have been popular for a decade or more in pollution-laden metropolises such as Tokyo and Mexico City. The bars hit the United States in the late 1990s and are especially popular in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, oxygen bar manufacturers said.

Florida has about a dozen of them dotting bigger cities such as Tampa, Orlando and Miami, said Cullen Cameron, president of Sarasota's Oasis, which makes the oxygen bar scents and filters. Cameron has never heard of a bar opening up in a suburban retirement community such as Spring Hill.

No major research has been done on oxygen bars, but proponents claim the breathing treatment can work amazing feats, curing headaches, promoting weight loss or even improving a sluggish sexual appetite.

"I don't know why it works. All I know is what I've seen and what my clients tell me," said Tiger Hut owner Carol Fernandes of Homosassa, who decided Spring Hill would be a perfect place to open an oxygen bar and salon. ("Ocala's too big, Homosassa too small," she said.)

Local doctors said breathing concentrated oxygen for short periods of time is probably harmless but offers no real health benefits.

Most healthy people's hemoglobin, a protein in the blood that carries oxygen around the body, is already 98 to 99 percent saturated with oxygen just from breathing regular air. Air has an oxygen content of about 21 percent.

"There is no advantage to having more oxygen," said A. Joseph Layon, an intensive care doctor and pulmonary expert at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. "Going to an oxygen bar is physiologically pointless."

The federal Food and Drug Administration considers oxygen bars technically illegal because they dispense oxygen, which is a drug that needs a prescription, said Cathleen Kolar, spokeswoman for the FDA. But the government has too much else to worry about to regulate oxygen bars, especially ones like the Tiger Hut, which doesn't even use oxygen canisters. The federal agency depends on the states to keep an eye on them.

Florida has no regulations on oxygen bars, representatives for the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said. Both representatives admitted they didn't know much about oxygen bars.

The only real dangers are for people who have been diagnosed with some types of emphysema or cancer survivors who have undergone Bleomycin chemotherapy, said Michael Jantz, a University of Florida professor and pulmonologist. The concentrated oxygen could make them stop breathing.

So far, Spring Hill residents who have tried the oxygen say they love it.

Sally Santiago drops by the Tiger Hut daily to relax to some eucalyptus-favored oxygen, which she says helps clear her sinuses. She heard about oxygen bars when she used to live in California five years ago, but she never imagined she would be going to one in Spring Hill.

"It's so relaxing. Most of the time I just fall asleep for 10 minutes," said Santiago, 63.

The Tiger Hut uses good old Spring Hill air for the treatment. A machine sucks up the room air, filters out the nitrogen, argon and carbon dioxide, among other components, and then spits out the oxygen, which runs 95 percent pure.

The oxygen runs through neon-colored cylinders containing liquid scents such as death-by-chocolate, a scent that smells much like it sounds.

All of which costs $8 for 10 minutes or $15 for 20 minutes. The salon has 17 flavors but will have 31 flavors by January.

Fernandes became interested in oxygen bars while trying them at a Las Vegas resort. She changed careers after seven years as a medical assistant for home hospice care. She decided to open the salon, which also offers facials, tanning and massages, because she likes to pamper people, she said.

So far, her clients have been mostly women in their 30s and 40s, though her husband is also a big fan of the oxygen bar, which he uses to help his smoker's cough.

"When I use this, I don't even know I smoke cigarettes," said Al Fernandes, who acknowledged it would be healthier to quit smoking. "It's absolutely incredible."

Sally Santiago lies down for a 10-minute oxygen bar session at the Tiger Hut Pampering Salon. The salon takes Spring Hill air and filters it down to 95 percent pure oxygen, then flavors it. Santiago, 63, says it helps clear her sinuses. "It's so relaxing."

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