ST. LOUIS – On the counter at the gas station, next to the lottery tickets and gum, sits a super-sized metal can of oxygen.

A bottle of 02 for sale. Here in the very-near-sea-level Midwest.

You pick it up. You shake it. It feels empty.

Of course. It is filled with air.

“Most people are like, “What is this?”‘ said Joe McNamara, manager of an Amoco station in Creve Coeur.

It is called Big Ox. Each can promises a burst of 93 percent pure oxygen to alleviate stress, boost energy or give relief from a hangover. It provides about 30 breaths and sells for $10 to $15.

Produced by a company in Springfield, Mo., Big Ox recently began popping up for sale in the St. Louis region at hundreds of gas stations and other stores. Although a couple of companies sell a similar product in other parts of the country, Big Ox says it is the only one offering flavors, including mountain mint and tropical breeze. Bottled oxygen also is a hit in Japan, where 7-Eleven convenience stores began selling it in May.

Big Ox takes a page from the playbook of the energy bars and energy drinks, such as Red Bull or Monster, that currently bulge from store shelves. As the back of the can reads, “In today’s stress-ridden, high-energy environment, you’ve got to be at your peak performance.”

There’s already bottled water. Now there’s bottled air.

It was dreamed up by two guys who worked for car dealerships in Springfield. They were at an oxygen bar in Las Vegas several years ago when the notion struck them.

“Why can’t you have oxygen in some other device you can use at your leisure?” asked one of the men, David McKeown.

They refined the idea. They found some investors. They started selling Big Ox on a limited basis in May.

Gas stations are the biggest clients. Some gyms and health-food stores sell it.

At Mallory Sports in Wood River, Ill., sales of bottled oxygen have been good. Salesman Tim Wiemers said he liked it.

“I noticed a burst of energy toward the end of a workout,” said Wiemers, a runner and triathlete.

But Dr. Mario Castro, a pulmonologist at the Washington University School of Medicine, said any healthful effect from breathing concentrated oxygen would be doubtful and, at best, fleeting.

“Any proposed benefit from this is really a stretch,” Castro said.

The air we breathe, for free, contains 21 percent oxygen – even on super-humid days when it feels as if you’re breathing through cheesecloth. That’s enough for a typical person without a serious lung disease to maintain a good blood oxygen concentration around 95 percent.

But Big Ox is probably not dangerous for a healthy person.

The guys who created Big Ox have big plans for their product. They hope to push distribution beyond the Midwest. Next month they plan to offer two new flavors: citrus and original.

Original tastes like air.

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