27 February 2012

You should NEVER breathe pure helium

Never.  It is potentially lethal, as these teenagers found out:
After drinking on the drive, and downing more drinks in the condo, it came time for [14-year-old] Ashley to take her turn on a tank of helium that everyone else was inhaling to make their voices sound funny.

"That helium tank got going around... It got to my daughter. My daughter didn't want to do it. It was peer pressure. They put a mask up to her face. They said it would be OK. `It's not gonna hurt you. It'll just make you laugh and talk funny.'"

Instead, she passed out and later died at a hospital, the result of an obstruction in a blood vessel caused by inhaling helium from a pressurized tank... Dr. Mark Morocco, associate professor of emergency medicine at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center in Los Angeles, said what happens is similar to when a scuba diver surfaces too quickly. A gas bubble gets into the bloodstream, perhaps through some kind of tear in a blood vessel, and can block blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke.

The gas is also commonly seen in suicide kits — mail-order hoods sold out of Oregon and elsewhere that can be attached to a helium tank by people who want to kill themselves. In those cases, the helium crowds out the oxygen, asphyxiating a person. Death from inhaling helium is so rare that the American Association Poison Control Centers lumps it in with other gases, such as methane and propane. Only three deaths were recorded in 2010, said spokeswoman Loreeta Canton...

The family moved from Grants Pass, Ore., to Eagle Point about a year ago, and Ashley had just gotten over the difficulty of adjusting to eighth grade in a new school. Justin Earp said the kids had four wine coolers each in the car, and four mixed drinks at the condo, before they started passing around the helium. Police said it was an 8-gallon canister, the kind you can buy at many stores. The kids were taking hits directly from the tank.
The cause of death is described as a gas embolism, which could occur if the nipple from the cylinder was placed directly in the mouth and the flow was high.  The more common mode of death would be through anoxic asphyxia, in which the inhaled pure helium displaces oxygen in the lungs; that can occur even after inhaling low-pressure gas via a loose-fitting face mask.

Helium is, as noted, rare as a cause of death, and is less commonly recognized as a toxic gas because it is lighter than air and unlike carbon dioxide and methane, it doesn't tend to accumulate in spaces (except in rare industrial settings).

If someone wants to alter their voice to imitate "Donald Duck," the effect can be achieved by inhaling a helium-oxygen mixture ("Heliox"), which typically contains 20% oxygen, 80% helium - though other proportions are available for specialized medical uses.  Those canisters are more difficult to find (and I suspect considerably more expensive) than the helium cylinders used to inflate balloons.

If you're at a party, and a helium cylinder is present, with tubing coming off the regulator leading to a face mask, look at the label on the cylinder.  If it doesn't specify that it is a helium-oxygen mixture, give it a pass and warn everyone else.


  1. The urge to breathe comes from too much carbon dioxide in the blood, not too little oxygen, so if you breathe any inert gas to wash out the see-oh-two you can pass out. Nitrous users occasionally do the same thing: this is why you should use a balloon or a bag or at least a mask without a strap. Not that you should use nitrous anyway; but if you'd rather only kill a few brain cells at once, breathe it from something that you drop if you faint.

  2. More important helium as a limited resource should cost about 20 times what it does.

  3. "The kids were taking hits directly from the tank."

    1. That would be different. I'll see if I can find any other reports.


    2. I did find this comment from the father at another source -

      “It blew her lungs out,’’ Earp said. “It exploded them. It created air pockets in her veins. Then it went up into her brain and blew it up.’’

      And in the video here -


      - the girl says the tank was held to the girl's mouth. If that's the case, then she cold well have died from gas embolism rather than anoxic asphyxia.

      I've modified the post. Thanks, anonymous.

  4. Not seeing the drastic information that matches the title of the post. Should say something along the lines of "Be Careful".

    Don't take hits of any gas directly from a compressed source.

    Don't continually inhale a gas that displaces oxygen.

  5. WOW. I was 14, at a bar Mitzvah. I'd had a few glasses of wine. I went to the helium out of peer pressure. I passed out cold for about 30 seconds. I was totally embarrassed. I was apparently rather lucky.

  6. I would not say helium is potentially lethal. If used correctly it is always lethal, painless and humane for those suffering unremitting pain and undergoing a terminal illness.

  7. kid when i was in high school took a big hit directly off a tank and passed out. lucky he woke up.

  8. I need all the brain cells I can get. At age 59 I have to focus to remember where I park my car.


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