A message from the twister archive

Archive of balloon entertainer discussions

From: "Chris Jackson" 
To: "Jack Finch" 
Subject: Re: Helium Question????
Date: Tue, 26 Jun 2001 10:08:23 -0600

Greetings, All.

Jack Finch wrote:

> When I make helium balloons at the mall I warn the kids against trying to
> breath the helium in an effort to sound like Donald Duck. When they ask
> I tell them that is is not good for them but I am not sury whe. What are
> hazards of breathing helium?

The responses that were posted to this list (that is: the ones that I
recieved with my latest BHQ digest update) were *all* either misinformed
(i.e. "urban legend") or else downright *WRONG* in their conclusions! I've
no doubt that many if not most of the folks on this list understand the true
(and scientifically sound!) dangers about inhaling helium,... this posting
is intended to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and *nothing* but the
truth!" about inflating helium!

Re: Dave Barry's article...

From this post, I must conclude that the child in question was breathing
"in" nothing but industrial grade helium, with no pauses to allow oxygen to
reach his system. This child was "drowning" in helium.  The human body needs
a certain amount of oxygen to continue to function. (i.e. LIVE!) The sole
*major* danger of inhaling helium is: Doing so without breathing oxygen for
too long!

Terry, "Gitsy" Basco wrote:

>I explain to them that helium can kill them.  First... it, as the article
that was just posted, has no oxygen.. do it enough times in a row.. and that
is not as many as you would think, and you can literally be suffocating
yourself and not know it. It is like someone holding a bag over your head..

BINGO!  Too much is *not* a good thing.  Breathing in nothing but helium
will kill you as easily as if you were breathing in nothing but CO2.  Pure
helium is O.K., *BUT* only if you breathe in some oxygen in between each
'hit' of pure helium.

One breath will *NOT* cause harm, several breaths in a row will have an
effect that is similar to smoke inhalation.  No Oxygen means that your brain
is being starved.

>Also, if you get hold of helium straight from the tank instead of a balloon
there is
a potential of exploding your lungs.

A "Potential", yes.  A remote possibility.  Inhaling straight from the tank
is a *major* danger. (see below)  Inhaling from the regulator (the device
that *seriously* lowers the output pressure) lowers this danger, but the
danger is still there.  Inhaling from an inflated latex balloon makes this
"exploding your lungs" story nothing but an "Urban Myth"! (i.e. a bald-faced

 >There is something like 2000 lbs of
pressure (don't quote me on the exact amount) in a helium tank.

I've dealt with several different companies, with different descriptions of
constitutes a "full" helium tank, and their products range from 1800 PSI to
2400 PSI. HOWEVER, the only way to expose oneself to this kind of pressure
is to stick your mouth directly on the valve at the top of the tank and open
it.  (i.e. no regulator.)  This kind of pressure *is* dangerous, and
difficult to control. If you tried inflating a balloon directly from the
tank, you would most likely either burst it or underinflate it.  That's why
engineers designed and built the pressure regulators that are used today.

> Enough so that if it was dropped without the protective cap on and the
valve was
broken off it would shoot literally like a torpedo. Hard enough to go thru a
wall.  I have heard some great stories of things like this happening in the
place they sell the helium.

Hmmm... I can see this happening, *very* rarely!  It would take a
combination of extrordinary circumstances and a total disregard of common
sense safety procedures.  In other words, it would be hard to do this
deliberately, much less accidentally!

>Helium is also used in welding.

Sometimes, occasionally, yes.  It is used when a non-chemically reactive
environment is needed. (very rare, and only for specific, unusual jobs.)
the vast majority (99%+) of welding jobs don't require such extremes.  An
Oxygen/Acetelene mix in an open-air environment is usually sufficient.

>If you are going to have a helium tank in your home.. I rent one for a
minimal fee to have it here whenever I need it...  you are supposed to
either chain it to a wall, or purchase a safety cart, that it can be
strapped to, so it can't accidentally tip.

This is one of the common-sense safety procedures mentioned above.  You've
got a long, skinny, *heavy* object balanced on one of the narrow ends.  Of
course you should take precautions to prevent it from tipping.  This rule
also applies to things like bookcases and home entertainment units.  You are
much more likely to be injured when this 60lb+ chunk of steel falls over and
lands on your foot.

Ian Lloyd wrote:

>Helium is taken up by the body faster than, and in
place of . oxygen.

Um,... er,... ah.... NO!  Sorry to be so blunt, but the above statement is
just plain untrue!  Check your high school chemistry book and you will find
that Helium is *not*, in any way shape or form, chemically reactive.  Your
body does *not* absorb it in place of oxygen, it cannot!  That is a physical
impossibility.  Read on.

> If the practice is not continuously repeated there isn't
a great deal of danger BUT why would anyone in their right mind encourage
(or not discourage) children from putting chemicals into their bodies,
particularly by inhaling?

A good point.  Personally, however, if a child is going to inhale something
for pleasure, then I would rather it be helium, or preferably a 80/20 mix of
helium and oxygen.  Helium is non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, non-addictive,...
in fact that helium/oxy mix is actually safer to breathe than the
smog-filled air that blankets most major cities. (Denver, LA, New York,

The biggest danger appears when someone breathes pure helium.  This could
lead to suffocation due to lack of oxygen.  Its not a question of the helium
"displacing" or "replacing" the oxygen in your bloodstream, if there is no
oxygen there to begin with, then *there* is your problem. The same problem
would occurr if you inhaled pure nitrogen, pure neon, or any other pure gas
that dosen't contain oxygen.

You want to avoid the suffocation danger?  Teach the kids to take a deep
breath of fresh air in between each breath of helium. That's all it takes to
avoid the suffocation danger.  Period.

>There is a danger in taking the use of something in one situation and
extrapolating that into its safe use in an entirely different situation. If
divers use helium or nitrox at depth I beleive the same mix would be lethal
at the surface ( I may be wrong, it's happened before, once)

Yes, you are incorrect on this.  (sorry, my friend.)  Right now, sitting in
front of your computer, reading this message, you are breathing a (roughly)
80/20 nitrox mix.  80% nitrogen, 20% oxygen. (roughly...) Its more commonly
known as "air".  There are some impurities, CO2, trace gasses, smog
particulates, even  a bit of helium!  That's your standard 
here on good old Earth.  Not at all lethal at the surface.

Divers carry a nitrox mix with them for a reason... Too *much* Oxygen in the
bloodstream can be dangerous.  That's right, too *much* is bad for you.  If
your body overloads on Oxygen, you get a sensation similar to drunkeness.
You get very relaxed and euphoric.  In a situation where you only have a
limited amount of time before you must surface this can be a real danger.

When doing long deep dives, it is preferable to use a 80/20 Helium/Oxy mix.
This is safer due to the dangers of Nitrogen Narcosis.  For more info, click
here: http://www.britannica.com/seo/n/nitrogen-narcosis/

Bottom line,... breathing helium is *not* dangerous, unless you fail to use
common sense.  Common sense rules: 1) Don't put your mouth on a 2000psi gas
source, vent the gas into something safer, like a balloon. 2) Don't breathe
pure helium for more than a few seconds, take a breath of fresh air
inbetween each breath of helium.

I challenge any and all to show me a case of someone who followed these
common sense rules and still came to harm.

Don't blindly accept the horror stories, get the truth, the *WHOLE* truth,
and nothing but the truth.  The whole truth will usually unravel the "urban

Chris Jackson
Ft. Collins, CO.