Doctors will campaign for an end to the “frivolous” use of helium in party balloons as they fear a shortage of the non-renewable gas could jeopardise its vital use in medical equipment.
Anaesthetist Dr Tom Dolphin said using helium in balloons was a “colossal waste” of the element, which is used in MRI scanners and mixed with oxygen to make Heliox to aid people who have difficult breathing. But another doctor said banning helium in balloons could lead to an increase in the use of nitrous oxide – also known as laughing gas or hippy crack. Dr Trevor Pickersgill told the British Medical Association’s (BMA) annual representatives meeting: “Glastonbury this week will be carpeted with the small whippets – the gas canisters used commercially to whip cream at four times the volume of air – but it’s used as a legal high in clubs and in the home and elsewhere.” Dr Pickersgill, a Cardiff-based consultant neurologist, said at least 17 people had died in the UK after inhaling the gas, which is sold in balloons for around £2 per dose and makes users feel euphoric and relaxed. Dr Dolphin, of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, said the United States has cut down the price of helium so it does not reflect its scarcity. “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,” he told delegates in Liverpool. “I’m not saying we should stop all party balloons, just those that we’re filling with extremely expensive, precious, non-renewable unique gases we’re going to miss when they’re gone.” His motion, which called on the BMA to campaign for a ban on the frivolous use of helium was supported by council chair Dr Mark Porter, who said not enough attention was being paid to the issue. Dr Porter said: “It is central to a number of industries, a number of pursuits, but as doctors we know it is absolutely central to our ability to diagnose a number of patients which cannot be done in any other way by using current technology.
“It is a tragedy to see this gas being sold off in order to depress the price so it can be used to a greater extent in things like party balloons.” The vote was carried by a “very large majority”, according to representatives body chair Dr Ian Wilson.