October 03, 2012 - On the surface, it seems harmless enough inhaling helium from a balloon to produce a comical, high-pitched voice that sounds like a silly cartoon character.
Addison resident Margaret Koski and her daughter Clarissa, whos a seventh-grader at Oxford Middle School. (click for larger version)
But Addison mother Margaret Koski isn't laughing, not after what happened when her 12-year-old daughter, Clarissa, did it as a joke on Sunday, Sept. 23.
The Koskis were volunteering as part of a fund-raising event at Addison Oaks County Park when Clarissa, who's a seventh-grader at Oxford Middle School, took a large mylar balloon out of a tree and decided to inhale the helium inside it for fun.
"She passed out," Margaret said. "She fell straight backwards, hit the ground (and) turned white."
Margaret indicated her daughter then experienced what looked to her to be some type of seizure.
"She was shaking fiercely and she spit up," she said. "It lasted a few seconds. It wasn't very long. I think when she spit up, that's when her breath came back. It was very terrifying."
"She inhaled the whole balloon as opposed to just squirting a little bit in her mouth," said Marilyn Szost, who's the EMS coordinator for the Addison Town ship Fire Department. "It was about as big as her head. (When inhaled), the helium displaces the oxygen in your blood. She pretty much displaced all of the oxygen in her lungs. Being a skinny, 12-year-old girl, that (helium) took up her entire lung capacity."
Given how much helium Clarissa inhaled, Szost indicated she probably became hypoxic, a condition in which the body as a whole or a region of the body is deprived of an adequate oxygen supply.
One of the common symptoms of hypoxia is "seizure-like activity," but "it's not the same thing as a seizure," said Szost, who's been with the Addison department since 1999.
"Anybody who becomes hypoxic will twitch," she explained. "When people used to be hanged, (they were reported to be) dancing at the end of the rope. They're muscles aren't getting oxygen, so they're twitching."
That seems to be what happened in Clarissa's case.
Intentionally inhaling helium or 'huffing' as it's called can deprive the body's cells and brain of the oxygen they depend upon to survive. The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen to remain functional and maintain consciousness.
Just as a person can't hold their breath indefinitely without either finally taking a breath or passing out, it's impossible for someone to maintain consciousness if a significant amount helium replaces the body's oxygen for a long period of time.
Since there are no sensors in the brain to recognize a lack of oxygen, it's possible to inhale helium to the point of passing out without ever feeling uncomfortable.
Clarissa was treated at the scene by Addison medics.
"They said she was fine and all her vitals were fine," Margaret said. "She wasn't dizzy or anything. They just said to watch her."
"Her brain re-oxygenized because she was now breathing actual air and the whole thing was over," Szost said.
"By the time we got there, her daughter was already conscious. She looked normal," noted Addison Fire Lt. Mike Zielinski.
The only thing damaged was Clarissa's pride. "She was very embarrassed and she felt stupid for what she did," Margaret said. "She learned a valuable lesson."
Margaret is very grateful that her daughter is okay, but she wants to warn other kids and parents about the dangers of inhaling helium, whether it's from a balloon or a tank.
"I think it's important to get the word out," she said. "Kids are dying from it. A lot of people aren't aware that this can kill you."
"It's rare (that someone dies), but the point is it can happen," Zielinski said. "I have a 13-year-old at home, so I explained to her that if she goes to these parties (and people are inhaling helium), just don't do it. You never know how your body's going to react to this stuff. It's not worth the risk."
"There are few comprehensive statistics on deaths from helium huffing, since the federal government does not collect them and few states do," according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC).
However, Florida is one of those states and according to data collected there, in 2010, approximately 20 percent of the state's 38 inhalant deaths involved helium.
The NPIC acknowledged that "while nine victims is a small number, this is one year of deaths in one state."
Szost explained the most significant health hazard is "when kids start taking hits off the actual helium tank."
"Don't do tanks," she said. "Tanks are especially dangerous. They're never a good idea. Death can come from tanks."
"There are two things that can happen with the helium tank," Szost continued. "One, the tank is pressurized, so they could actually blow a lung out. Or, since helium is a light gas, it can actually produce a (gas) bubble in their blood."
That "little bubble" can travel anywhere in the body. If it reaches the heart, lungs or brain and causes a blockage in a blood vessel, it can cause a major stroke or even death.
In February 2012, a 14-year-old named Ashley Long died in Oregon after inhaling helium from a pressurized tank. A gas bubble entered her bloodstream and blocked the blood flow to her brain.
"It doesn't have to be a very big bubble to cause problems," Szost noted.
Although not life-threatening, Szost noted there's another problem that can occur when people habitually inhale helium.
"Doing helium too much can permanently damage your vocal (chords)," she said. "You don't want to do that."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.