An unnamed 12-year-old singer in Japan has just come out of a coma caused by inhaling helium on January 28. The incident occurred during a stunt on 3B Junior Stardust Shoji, a TB show about 3B Junior, one of those Japanese singing groups with dozens of members. This is what they look like, if you're curious:
According to the Japanese media, the 12-year-old in question is awake, but can barely move or speak after pulling what's ordinarily considered a pretty harmless trick that makes people talk funny. The incident wasn't made public until a week after the fact, which has outraged some commentators (link in Japanese).
Officials from the TV Asahi network have publicly apologized for potentially ruining a girl's life over a high-voice gag—and by the way, how much higher did they want a 12-year-old girl's voice to go?
It's assumed that the girl fell victim to an air embolism, which most commonly happens when someone is inhaling helium from a pressurized tank. According to Howard Wolfe, director of the New England Inhalant Abuse Prevention Coalition, inhaling helium from tanks like that can kill adults as well as children."High-pressure gas goes into your lungs, and it can go through the lining of your lungs and into the bloodstream," is how he describes it. The victim's heart can't pump with that helium in the bloodstream, and it seizes up. Lung ruptures and embolisms kill a handful of people per year—not enough to be an international health crisis, but far too many for something so completely preventable. A similar thing happened to a 14-year-old girl in Oregon in 2012, though in her case the consequences were fatal.
Embolisms, Wolfe says, "most often happen when kids—or adults—put their mouths over high-pressure tanks like the ones you use to fill balloons."
The footage of the Japanese TV show didn't air, so it's not clear whether the girl was breathing directly from a tank or from a balloon. Balloons are much safer than tanks because the gas inside is at a much lower pressure. "I've never heard of [someone getting an embolism from a balloon] unless someone already had a lung condition," Wolfe says. "Usually what happens is you get confused and pass out, and then you let go of whatever's feeding you the helium.
"But there are still some problems with it," he hastens to add. First of all, helium from party supply companies is adulterated. "Those tanks are not filled with pure, medical-grade helium," Wolfe says. "It's helium with other gasses in it, along with oil from compressors."
That's not to say we should all run screaming from helium, we just shouldn't be stupid about it. What happened to this girl in Japan was terrible, and all the more tragic for being so easily avoidable.
So if someone's passing around the "voice change tank" and you're excited because you've never heard your voice on helium before (spoiler: It's higher), see if anyone's got a balloon instead.
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