Pioneer Balloon Company - Makers of Qualatex balloons
Date: Mon, 31 Jan 2000 14:42:27 -0500 (EST)
From: Larry Moss <moss@balloonhq.com>
To: Balloon Decorator List <balloondeco@balloonhq.com>
Subject: Re: Helium Deaths

I was trying to decide if it was worth jumping into this little debate,
especially since it seems likely that a large number of you will disagree
with me.  I finally decided I'd post my opinion but more because the thing
that I see as hurting our industry more than a silly commercial is the
spread of misinformation.

Opinion first -

It's a commercial.  I thought it was a really cute commercial.  I didn't
watch it last night since I find that too much time during the superbowl is
devoted to football.  (Now I know I'm really gonna get in trouble.)  I did
just watch it on msnbc.com.  As a friend said to me earlier, "no one is
going to learn bad behavior like sucking on a helium balloon any more than
anyone will learn to catch a road runner by dropping anvils off of cliffs."
Dropping anvils great distances seems to me like it would be far more
dangerous.  (Especially since we all know that anvils fall slower than
everything else and are guaranteed to land on top of you if you fall off
the cliff at the same time.)  Coyotes capable of dropping anvils and
munchkins living in the land of Oz are all fictional characters.  It was
done in the name of fun and I think it should be taken that way.

Now on to the serious stuff.  One person posted asking for the hows and
whys related to the dangers of helium.  Personally, I think this is a lot
more meaningful than calling or writing to Fedex to complain.  I know many
of you will disagree with my opinion above.  I'm more than ok with that.  I
do want to keep facts straight.  (Please do your own independent research.
I'm reporting only what I know.)

We have some information about helium in the health chapter of the Guide.
There's a link to an article from the New York Times about sucking on
helium.  That link seems to be stale now, but there is other information
on health in that chapter on balloon related health issues.

Specific stuff from this discussion:

>  I too discourage my clients and tell them that it is like a drug in that
> it kills brain cells.  Where can we get more correct information?  Maybe
> someone could write up a pamphlet about it? 

Well, yeah, if you die of asphyxiation all of your brain cells will die.
Helium is not a drug and does not behave like a drug.  In fact, you breath
helium every day.  And that's not because you're in the balloon industry.
Helium is in the atmosphere.  It's also added to the air mixture used by
scuba divers and (I believe) astronauts.  (If I'm wrong about the
astronauts, I'm sure our resident rocket scientist will correct me.:-)

The danger comes from inhaling so much that your body is deprived of
oxygen.  If there is oxygen in the tank (typical of a "balloon gas" mix),
you'll probably get enough oxygen to continue breathing.  In most cases if
you do deprive your body of oxygen for a bit, you'll pass out, the helium
will escape from your body (unless you also inhaled hi-float) and within
seconds you'll be breathing normally.  When you wake up after that, the
only medical problem you'll have is a bump on the head from your fall.  

I wouldn't recommend sucking helium.  I, personally, wouldn't want to take
the chance of not getting enough oxygen into my lungs.  But medically
speaking, I think some of you are overreacting.

>    I just heard on the news this morning that the two people who died in a
> blimp while repairing was caused by the release of helium into the chamber
> they were in.  I have heard of one other person dying because he inhaled
> too much helium. 

This was a case where the quantity of helium, relative to the lack of
oxygen did the trick.  Two substances can't take up the same space at the
same time.  It wasn't the helium, per se, that killed them.  It was the
lack of oxygen because it was displaced by massive amounts of helium.

Other dangers come from putting your mouth on the tank's valve.  If you
just open the tank, the pressure rushing out at you will cause quite a bit
of damage.  You might also have trouble with helium if you use it to
inflate 45 weather balloons in order to go for a short flight like Larry
Waters did in 1992.

Now that we've established that there are more dangerous things you can put
in your mouth than helium, I'm going to go back to packing the props for my
show tonight.  I misplaced my fire-eating wands.

Larry Moss
BalloonHQ.com

P.S. For anyone that's wondering, the reason helium changes the sound of
your voice is that it's less dense than air.  Sound waves travel faster
through helium than through air, resulting in a higher pitch as it leaves
your mouth.