They used a chemical process that is taught in Indian high schools. Yet YouTube took down videos of young Indians making oxygen at home, as multiple hospitals across India effectively run out of oxygen.
In the videos, YouTubers made their own oxygen-intake devices, using easily available chemicals or creating oxygen from water through electrolysis. The content platform removed the videos earlier this week saying they were “dangerous,” but an expert told VICE World News that the risk in the electrolysis method is comparatively minimal.
India is gasping for air, as the country deals with an extreme oxygen crisis amid it’s unprecedented COVID-19 second wave. This has not only allowed an unregulated black market operation to thrive, but also prompted Indians to experiment with making oxygen at home.
The need is clear. According to data from Google Trends, “How to make oxygen at home” became a trending search from April 18 onwards, as thousands of Indians put out SOS alerts on social media to find oxygen.
This fuelled a YouTube trend among young Indians who began posting step-by-step instructions of how to make oxygen at home safely, including videos on the purification process.
“I was reading about the number of deaths due to oxygen shortage in the newspaper one morning when I remembered a chapter on electrolysis from my tenth grade standard textbook, which showed us how to make oxygen,” Rahul Soni, a 20-year-old engineering student who uploaded a DIY oxygen video in India told VICE World News.
According to Soni, it took him about ten minutes to make the oxygen through the electrolysis process, using a plastic container, a battery connected to a direct current power source (which has a one-directional flow of an electric charge), and stainless steel nuts and bolts. His video received more than 800,000 views on YouTube, with one viewer even reaching out to Soni to tell him about his success when he tried it at home.
“I got messages from people who couldn’t find a hospital bed with oxygen, and tried my method. They told me it helped patients with breathing difficulties,” he said. Soni added that while he believed anyone with a technical knowledge of the process could make oxygen, he decided to add a disclaimer to his video. “I didn’t want to invite any legal issues,” he told VICE World News.
Despite his disclaimer however – which told viewers to try the process at their own risk and which clarified that Soni was an engineer not a doctor – YouTube took down his video a few days later. “They told me they found my video dangerous, but did not explain why,” he said.
Similar videos that showed people how to make oxygen at home using methods taught to school students were also taken down by YouTube earlier this week, according to other content creators VICE World News spoke to.
While many of the YouTubers who made these DIY oxygen devices are Indian high school students, a similar oxygen kit was put together by a team from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, India’s highest ranked educational institute.
Dr. Thalappil Pradeep, the IIT professor who spearheaded this initiative, told VICE World News that they made a kit “using materials available at hardware stores and chemical shops to reduce the logistical issues of making oxygen.”
Working with a team of students and graduates, Pradeep was able to use the age-old electrolysis process to address the issue of oxygen shortage and hoarding.
A video uploaded on the process by one of his team members was also taken down by YouTube. Once again, the platform cited safety concerns.
But Pradeep stressed that this model was feasible and could be scaled by creating a network of centres that hand out these kits, and connect volunteers with scientific or technical knowledge to people who desperately need oxygen.
“This device can produce anything between two litres or oxygen per minute to five litres per minute. We are still doing a medical evaluation, since I have been told that COVID-19 patients require 15 litres of oxygen per minute, but we feel this device can help people who need small amounts of oxygen,” he said.
His team has since uploaded the same video, which remains online as of publication time.
Pradeep, who has won India’s highest civilian award for his distinguished work in the field of science and technology, did admit that there is risk involved “with anything scientific.” However, he emphasised it is comparatively minimal.
“With anything scientific, you have to be cautious, and there could be some amount of hydrogen that gets mixed in when you use this method, but it is still not a large enough amount to be harmful, as long as the water you are using is clean,” he added. Though he believes that this method should be used by those with technical know-how, they do not necessarily have to be science graduates.
“In India, we have mechanics and electricians who may not have a college degree, but have an innovative and scientific mind. The idea of making a DIY kit is to make it accessible because we believe innovation goes a long way in empowering people.”
YouTube has not responded to VICE World News’ requests for comment as of publication time. But it is unclear what exactly the platform considers dangerous.
Prabhat Mishra, who goes by the YouTube username Technical PM, is another 16-year-old who made oxygen at home using the hydrogen peroxide and potassium permanganate method – which he also learned in school.
Mishra said his DIY oxygen device was not meant to be used directly on patients with breathing difficulties, and was told by viewers that it was not effective. His aim was to release atmospheric oxygen in areas that use concentrators. “Wherever there is an oxygen concentrator, which purifies the air and makes oxygen, we can use this device.”
“I started making videos showing people how to buy oxygen concentrators, and because of the great response, I decided to show them how to make it at home,” Mishra told VICE World News.
His video has not been taken down. This, despite medical experts warning against these DIY concentrator devices, fearing it may lead to an explosion if not done properly.
"There is a scientifically proven method to produce medical oxygen through concentrators. Any other means to try making the gas at home involves many risks like chances of toxic gases being inhaled and explosions," A Ravikumar, secretary of the Indian Medical Association for the southern state of Tamil Nadu, told Reuters.
Meanwhile, Kritarth Tiwari, a 16-year-old student who used the same method as Mishra, but said his intention was to help patients, said his video was taken down. “There are many similar YouTube videos from around the world, and the difference was that I used materials that are easily available in India,” claimed Tiwari. “They told me I was doing some dangerous act, but I even made a video showing people how to purify the oxygen after.”
A review by VICE World News confirmed that similar videos from outside India on how to make oxygen remain on YouTube.
The Indian government maintains there isn’t an oxygen shortage in the country, but hospitals say they’re struggling to source oxygen. In April the government asked Twitter to take down tweets, including some that alluded to the shortage. The company complied.
YouTube has a set of community guidelines aimed to reduce abuse and harm, but moderation is expectedly subjective. Last month, YouTube defended their decision not to take down a livestream video of the Boulder, Colorado shooting which showed dead victims, even though some said it violated their guidelines on showing graphic content.
The company’s moderation feedback to the YouTubers whose oxygen content were taken down suggest that their videos fell under YouTube’s guidelines on dangerous content which asks users to not upload “content which claims that harmful treatments can have health benefits.”