It’s an old party trick that’s often viewed as harmless fun: breathing helium to alter the sound of the voice. But is it harmless? Here’s a warning from a safety bulletin issued by Air Liquide Canada, one of the country’s major helium suppliers:
“Inhaling helium from a balloon, a gas cylinder or filling equipment, even for a short period, can cause death or severe injury. Breathing helium into the lungs is not the same thing as holding your breath. When you hold your breath, oxygen is absorbed more slowly into the blood stream, but you have some time before you will begin to feel the effects. However, if you breathe helium into the lungs, oxygen is actually removed from the blood stream. This means you can lose consciousness very quickly and without any warning, even while you are still standing. An uncontrolled fall can cause serious injury, while a severe lack of oxygen can result in brain damage or death. A further hazard exists if helium is inhaled from a commercial balloon-filling system. In this case, the pressure of the gas has been shown to rupture lungs, causing immediate death. With this type of accident, artificial respiration will not save the victim.” Air Liquide Canada offers the following safety precautions for individuals handling helium:
• Never intentionally try to breathe helium.
• Do not allow children or unqualified people to operate balloon-filling equipment.
• If you are using high pressure rechargeable cylinders or cylinders without gas regulating apparatus in the valve, do not open the cylinder valve before attaching the balloon-filling helium regulator to it.
• Do not use leaking equipment. Contact your supplier if the cylinder or any
connections appear to be leaking.
• Do not enter any area where helium has been accidentally released without
wearing self-contained breathing apparatus.
• Do not store helium in a closed room.