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Matt:

Where does helium come from?

-- Harry Roberson, Oak Park

Dear Matt:

Is it harmful to inhale helium? The party balloon kit I got from Costco says it's dangerous, but I've been doing it for years, and I have never suffered any ill effects that I am aware of.

-- Arthur Priest, La Mesa

You got the party kit from Costco. You got the warning label from Costco's lawyers. Every manufacturer and retailer fears our infinite capacity for harebrained behavior, thus the proliferation of warning labels. As you've noticed, the occasional brief hit off a helium balloon does no lasting harm. Except to your friends, who have to put up with your Alvin and the Chipmunks routine one more time. In fact, helium is used therapeutically with some breathing disorders and is used in oxygen mixtures for deep-sea divers. So helium plus a sensible, rational human being equals no big deal.

But you don't need a Mensa card to buy a helium balloon kit. This is proved by the reports of people huffing a whole balloonful of helium, passing out, and having seizures. Helium displaces oxygen when you inhale; displace too much oxygen, and you'll pass out. Nature's way of telling you to knock it off.

But if the warning label is on a helium tank, well, now we're talking real trouble. There are several recent reports of kids (mostly) showing off by putting their mouths over the outlet valve of a helium tank, turning it on, and literally blowing out their lungs, drowning in their own blood. Studies have shown that it takes less than half a second to receive a lethal dose of helium from a pressurized tank, so don't think you can flip the valve on and off real fast. It won't work.

So where does helium come from? Natural gas fields in Texas and Wyoming. It's extracted from the gas, then stored in an underground federal facility as a hedge against the coming helium shortage. Well, that's what the government anticipated back in 1960, when Russia was the only other country producing a significant amount of it. So you and I own more than 30 billion cubic feet of helium somewhere under Amarillo. Helium is used by NASA and in research labs, especially labs that work with superconductors.

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