Inhaling Helium

29 11 2014

To get the most out of this I need you to do something. I want you to hold your breath as you read this post. I promise it will make sense later.

Ready? 3-2-1- take a big breath in… and lets get started.

Despite any scare stories or news reports you might have read helium cannot hurt you.

Think about it. If inhaling helium from a ballon was dangerous would McDonalds hand out balloons filled with helium with their Happy Meals?

How’s the breath holding going? Starting to feel anything yet?

Helium is a wonderful gas with many amazing properties and uses. It is not dangerous in and of itself.

Helium gas is odourless, tasteless and non-toxic- it’s not poisonous if you breathe it. Helium is lighter than air which is why balloons float and your squeeky helium voice goes back to normal- it floats up and out of your lungs all by itself.

Let me repeat helium is not poisonous and sucking small amounts from a balloon cannot hurt you.

I bet you are finding it harder and harder to hold your breathe. Can you feel that burn? Can you feel that urge to breathe? Good. You can stop now. Breathe again. Thanks for playing along.

The dangers of sucking in helium are massively over exaggerated in the reporting of the vanishingly small number of helium related incidents.

People get into trouble inhaling helium in three ways.

1. Most commonly people faint because they don’t realise their brains are not getting enough oxygen.

2. Occasionally people suffer fatal lung damage because they suck it straight from pressurised cylinders.

3. And an increasing number of people use it as a very effective way to commit suicide.

Lets deal with 2 and 3 first.

2. Pressurised gas cylinders are dangerous whatever gas is contained in them. If you suck gas directly out of a cylinder the force of the gas released is easily strong enough to rupture the alveoli (or air sacs) in your lungs causing them to bleed. Death follows immediately as you literally drown in your own blood [REF].

Deaths from sucking helium out of cylinders are not due to the gas being helium. We should be reporting these deaths as pressurised cylinder deaths not helium deaths. By not stressing the vital role of the pressurised gas we are not just unfairly demonising an inert substance but failing to make people aware of a real risk.

3. If you search for ‘inhaling helium death’ you don’t need to scroll far to find instructions on how to use helium as a method to commit suicide. In the 10 years between 1993 and 2002 only 3 deaths were recorded in England and Wales with helium mentioned on the death certificate. In 2013 alone the number was 62 [REF See table 6a]. If we assume the amount of helium balloons in England and Wales has stayed constant since 1993 (and I can’t find evidence to the contrary) then we can’t say inhaling helium has suddenly got much more dangerous. The way a small number of people very deliberately inhale helium has changed and this is nothing to do with casual balloon sucking. These tragic intentional suicides should not be used or confused into the McDonalds balloon data set. They are very different.

1. What happens often is people faint dramatically when inhaling helium because they forget they can’t breathe helium.

Take a big breath again.

The air we breathe in is a mixture of
78% nitrogen
21% oxygen and
1% argon.

Breathe out.

The air we breathe out is
78% nitrogen and
1% argon (nothing happens inside our lungs to those inert gases) but now about
16% oxygen and
5% carbon dioxide.

It is a myth we ‘breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide’. We breathe in just over one fifth oxygen and breathe out just less than one fifth oxygen with the difference being made up of carbon dioxide [REF].

When you held your breath earlier it wasn’t you running out of oxygen that made you want to breathe it was actually the build up of carbon dioxide.

Think about what’s happening when you’re sucking on a helium balloon. Instead of 21% oxygen you are getting 100% helium. Effectively you are holding your breath but because you are sucking in a gas and there’s no build up of carbon dioxide you’ve got no way of knowing. When you suck in helium you feel totally normal- there’s gas in your lungs, there’s no air hunger because there’s no carbon dioxide build up- but your body and brain are silently being starved of oxygen.

If you just take one breath of helium it’s like holding your breath for 20 seconds or so. Your body can cope easily. This is harmless good fun.

But if you were to do it twice or three times without stopping to top up on air then it is like holding your breath for a minute. Your body can’t cope with this and that’s why you faint.

Your brain is an amazing machine. When you are doing something stupid it can over-ride your conscious thoughts. In this situation it basically says you are being stupid and I want you to stop.

When you are lying on the floor you are no longer breathing helium but air. Everything starts to go back to normal and you come round albeit to the panicked looks of concerned parents and friends.

Once again its not the helium that’s caused the damage (or rather drama unless you’ve hit yourself off something as you fainted) its the lack of oxygen. But poor old helium gets the blame.

Remember helium can’t hurt you. Helium is inert. But that doesn’t mean if you don’t think about what you are doing you can’t have an accident around helium.

Digging around the accidental causes of helium related deaths I could find no examples of people dying from using McDonalds sized balloons to suck in gulps of helium. For instance two teenagers died but they were found inside a giant balloon filled with helium. The well reported Ashley Long death involved a cylinder and face mask. And the tragic death of a Northern Irish girl was because she got her head stuck inside a large foil balloon.

Any death, accidental or intended, is tragic. But we must resist repeating nonsense about helium being dangerous and even deadly. Communicating the real risks- of pressurised gas inhalation and accidental asphyxiation- will actually make people much safer.

Today (2/4/15) I found this amusing video on YouTube. Helen Mirren and Jimmy Fallon ask each other questions whilst inhaling helium.

If sucking helium gas from a balloon was dangerous there is no way the famously risk averse American TV networks would show it.

Adverts might follow this post I have no control and I don’t benefit from these adverts.




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