Helium is grouped under the category of noble gases. It is extremely light weight in nature. It therefore has the ability to quickly escape out in the atmosphere when released.
These properties have been exploited by many for filling balloons with helium gas, making them “float” high up in the air, much to the delight of small children.
Liquid helium is used as a very effective coolant. When released in small quantities helium has a natural ability to get diluted extremely quickly, posing no serious threat to humans or animals. We do not come across helium gas on a daily basis and therefore the risks or deaths associated with excess inhalation of helium are very rare. However, the dangers posed by helium should never be neglected or taken for granted.
How Helium may be Inhaled Through Balloons
Colorful balloons for kids are generally filled with helium gas. In some cases, a mixture of helium and some amounts of oxygen is also used. When a child or adult tries to blow air into the partially deflated balloon (that has been pumped with helium previously), there are increased chances of the child/adult inhaling some amount of helium in the process. Small quantities of helium inhalation are not harmful. Our lungs have the ability to immediately expel out helium along with other used up gases like carbon dioxide, making our lungs “helium free”. The problem arises when large amounts of helium are inhaled or when the person tries to hold his/her breath for long periods of time after inhalation.
Inhaling Helium a Pass Time!
Inhaling small quantities of helium is considered a favorite pass time among many because of the sudden screeching mouse like sound that comes out of the person’s voice box when he/she speaks after immediate inhalation of helium gas. The change in voice is a source of bemusement for many. However, people fail to realize that helium is a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas. In many cases, the person may be breathing in a lot of helium without even realizing it until he passes out.
How is Helium Dangerous?
Just like balloons, our lungs cannot tolerate and hold large amount of gases for prolonged periods of time. When there is excess inhalation of helium, the linings of the lungs get expanded to their maximum limit. In extreme cases, these linings will rupture forcing your lungs to burst, the mechanism being similar to balloons bursting when filled excessively. This is a serious condition and can even cause death if immediate medical aid is not administered to the person.
This happens because the lungs will be filled up with helium gases, instead of oxygen. When the body is deprived of oxygen, the elixir of life, every single metabolic process and brain functioning is immediately halted. Malfunctioning of brain is deadly, leading to death of cells, causing coma. An immediate refill of oxygen is mandatory to keep the person alive and prevent asphyxia.
Who Are Vulnerable?
Inhaling large quantities of helium from balloons is a rare possibility. While the risks associated with inhaling helium gas from balloons are relatively low, inhaling helium directly from canisters can spell disaster. Canisters have helium compressed at extremely high pressures. When released, they can fill your lungs and immediately expand, leading to extreme pressure on the outer linings, causing rupture and bursting of lungs.
Undersea divers who depend on air tanks to aid in respiration are at an increased risk of inhaling unwanted and excess quantities of helium. The latter is mainly used because of the minimum side effects it poses when compared to other types of gases. However, an excess can lead to unconsciousness and even death in rare cases.