Restricting helium sales to prevent squeaky-voice foolery?

by Walter Olson on March 16, 2012

A group called the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, with support from federal agencies SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), held a press conference yesterday to promote wider restrictions on the sale and use of helium, the familiar balloon-filling gas that as most people know will make one’s voice squeaky if inhaled. Although helium has low toxicity, it can pose dangers to the user, especially when inhaled directly from a pressurized container, the dangers “mostly related to the mechanical damage of introducing a highly compressed gas into your lungs,” as a doctor put it in a 1997 publication from NIPC (“Helium: Not a Laughing Matter”). The Washington Times reports on the coalition’s demands and quotes me for balance: “Small risk is worth knowing about, but it’s not worth rearranging our whole lives around.” It’s one thing to make sure kids know it’s unacceptably dangerous to breathe gases from pressurized containers, and another to make it unlawful for responsible 17-year-olds to pick up the balloon supplies for the family wedding.

P.S. Several readers wrote to say that because of current federal policy helium winds up artificially underpriced, encouraging its use for frivolous purposes; more on that here.

{ 12 comments }

1 Black Death 03.16.12 at 8:34 am

Maybe we should just put warning labels on the helium canisters, as we do for cigarettes.

WARNING! INHALING HELIUM MAY CAUSE LUNG DAMAGE OR EVEN SUDDEN DEATH! IF YOU STOP INHALING NOW, YOU GREATLY REDUCE YOUR RISK OF DEVELOPING THESE CONDITIONS!

2 Tom Murin 03.16.12 at 8:40 am

Well meaning folks, no doubt, but you are spot on in your analysis, as usual. There is only so far we can go to protect people from themselves. Someday they’ll figure out how many people are injured on stairs or from falling in the bathtub and go after these “real” public health issues. You know – “for the children.”

3 Mannie 03.16.12 at 10:10 am

We’d be a lot better off, if we stopped selling this irreplaceable strategic material at bargain basement prices.

4 Greg Dwyer 03.16.12 at 11:33 am

If this happens, I predict a future dearth of Chipmunk cover songs on Youtube

5 kimsch 03.16.12 at 1:35 pm

Tom, there was a study I heard about the other day. Every six seconds !!!11111!!!1 a child goes to hospital to be treated for injuries sustained on stairs. Ban all stairs everywhere!

6 Walter Olson 03.16.12 at 1:37 pm

And thanks to kimsch for catching a typo in the original post, fixed now.

7 wfjag 03.16.12 at 3:00 pm

@kimsch: “Tom, there was a study I heard about the other day. Every six seconds !!!11111!!!1 a child goes to hospital to be treated for injuries sustained on stairs. Ban all stairs everywhere!”

The study, further, showed that 1 in 4 of those accidents occurred when a parent or other care taker fell while carrying the child up or down the stairs. Accordingly, if we banned parents, baby-sitters, nannys, au pairs, and all other care takers of infants/young children, a huge number of injuries to those children would be avoided each year.

8 mojo 03.16.12 at 4:07 pm

“Thinking for yourself” soon to be on the verboten list…

9 ustus 03.16.12 at 10:16 pm

Helium is the second most common in the universe after hydrogen. And i thought all my life it’s nontoxic gas. strange…

10 Bumper 03.16.12 at 11:44 pm

And I just assumed that whole “Oh, the humanity” episode would have exposed helium sufficiently to prelude it ever being allowed in contact with humans again. Where were the helium nannies when we needed them. Just another failure of little government, we clearly need a bigger one.

11 John Burgess 03.17.12 at 10:18 am

@Bumper: The Hindenburg was floating on Hydrogen gas, which is highly flammable. The US refused to export Helium to Germany at the time, so the German zeppelin had to fall back on the less-desirable Hydrogen to stay in the air. The US government had already mandated that US blimps and zeppelins use the safer, though slightly heavier Helium.

12 Hmmm 03.25.12 at 9:21 am

There’s something plausible and something just not right in the helium story. If helium were that precious,wouldn’t a speculator simply buy at the “below market” rate and hold. And wouldn’t the presence of those purchases tend to drive up prices now and being a better equilibrium. (if a balloon really holds $100 worth of gas, stockpiling should be very profitable.)

The article reads like a know-it-all telling us that helium is worth more than we think. And we need him to set the price for us.

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