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But balloons are not the same as cigarettes, and the vote at last week’s BMA annual representative meeting to campaign for a ban on the ‘frivolous’ use of helium conjures up an image of sad children leaving parties empty-handed.
Anaesthetist Tom Dolphin’s impassioned call got off with a bang as he popped an (air-filled) balloon at the ARM podium. But it was his words that really won him attention.
He said: ‘This invaluable, irreplaceable gas is being literally handed to children in balloons so they can be entertained for a few minutes until they get bored and let go.
‘The balloon rises into the atmosphere and bursts. The helium is lost to space. What a colossal waste.’
Dr Dolphin reflects a concern in the scientific community.
The Nobel prizewinner Robert Richardson warned that supplies could run out in 25 or 30 years. And that was five years ago, since when none of the issues he warned about seem to have been resolved.
The main problem seems to be its price. The USA produces the bulk of the world’s supply, and its Government made a decision in the 1990s to sell off its reserve gradually, so its low cost bears no reflection to the difficulty in producing it or its relative scarcity as a non-renewable resource.
Professor Richardson has said that, to reflect the true worth of the gas, a helium balloon would have to cost around $100 or £64.
There was probably no-one at the ARM who thought helium’s use in party balloons was more important than in MRI scanners and Heliox.
But Cardiff consultant neurologist Trevor Pickersgill warned of ‘unintended consequences’. If its use in scuba diving was also considered ‘frivolous’, it would make the sport more dangerous, as its use in breathing tanks reduces the risk of decompression sickness.
He feared it might increase the use of nitrous oxide in balloons, which he described as ‘hippie crack’.
He said there have been at least 17 deaths from inhalation reported in the UK and it could cause severe spinal cord syndromes, which could be permanently disabling.
These are hugely serious issues but it’s important to at least acknowledge that, in the eyes of the public, helium is associated with fun.
When BMA council chair Mark Porter spoke, acknowledge he did, saying: ‘For those of you waiting for the high voice, I’m sorely disappointing you.’
He added: ‘I’m not a complete party pooper, but nevertheless I do think this has gone too far and we have too scant attention being paid to this issue.’
Dr Dolphin had even thought about the children who still wanted balloons above their heads. Put them on sticks, he said.
As for fears the debate would go down like a lead balloon in the media, this was a case of the dog that didn’t bark (or the balloon that didn’t burst).
Although the debate was widely covered in the press, there were no shrill, balloon-popping, fun-bursting accusations levelled against doctors.
Tammy Lovell is BMA views and analysis writer
Not quite sure how to say this but it seems that Dr Dolphin doesn't understand how the helium used in balloons is produced. Helium for party balloons is a bye product of the process used to produce pure helium, it is what is left over at the end. In the past it was just vented off to atmosphere, now that there is a market for it, it produces a secondary income for the producers. With current processes it is toodifficult/expensive to increase the purity of helium balloon gas to the point where it can be used for the MRI scanners.
As for the Nitrous Oxide, why would people use this instead of helium, it is heavier than air, so the balloons would not float?