Balloon gas safety: The dangers of Helium and Nitrogen 

Balloon gas is a mixture of helium and air. Balloon gas is safe when used correctly but you should never deliberately inhale the gas as it is an asphyxiant and can result in health complications. Like other asphyxiants, the helium in balloon gas occupies some of the volume normally taken by air, preventing that air being used to keep fires going or to keep bodies functioning.  

There are other asphyxiants used in industrial applications. For example, use of nitrogen has become almost indispensable in numerous industrial manufacturing and transport processes. While the uses of nitrogen are numerous, it must be handled in accordance with industrial safety regulations. Nitrogen should be treated as a potential safety hazard regardless of the scale of the industrial process in which it is being employed. Carbon dioxide is commonly used as an asphyxiant, especially in fire suppression systems and some fire extinguishers. Similarly, helium is non-flammable, non-toxic and doesn’t react with other elements in normal conditions. However, knowing how to properly handle helium is essential, as a misunderstanding could lead to errors in judgement which could result in a fatal situation as helium is used in many everyday situations. As for all gases, proper care and handling of helium containers is vital. 

What are the dangers? 

When you inhale helium knowingly or unknowingly it displaces air, which is partly oxygen. This means that as you inhale, oxygen that would normally be present in your lungs has been replaced with helium. As oxygen plays a role in many functions of your body, including thinking and moving, too much displacement poses a health risk. Typically, inhaling a small volume of helium will have a voice-altering effect, however, it may also cause a bit of dizziness and there is always the potential for other effects, including nausea, light headedness and/or a temporary loss of consciousness – all the effects of oxygen deficiency. 

  • As with most asphyxiants, nitrogen gas, like helium gas, is colourless and odourless. In the absence of nitrogen detecting devices, the risk of industrial workers being exposed to a dangerous nitrogen concentration is significantly higher. Also whilst helium often rises away from the working area due to its low density, nitrogen remains, spreading out from the leak and not dispersing quickly. Hence systems operating on nitrogen developing undetected leaks is a major safety regulatory concern. Occupational health preventive guidelines attempt to address this increased risk using additional equipment safety checks. The problem is low oxygen concentrations affecting personnel. Initially symptoms include mild shortness of breath and cough, dizziness and perhaps restlessness, followed by rapid breathing chest pain and confusion, with prolonged inhalation resulting in high blood pressure, bronchospasm and pulmonary edema. 
  • Helium can cause these exact same symptoms if it is contained in a volume and can’t escape. And in each case a complete replacement of the air with the asphyxiant gas causes rapid knockdown where a person just collapses where they stand resulting in a variety of injuries. 

Balloon Gas Safety Best Practice 

In accordance with OSHA guidelines, mandatory testing is required for confined industrial spaces with the responsibility being placed on all employers. Sampling atmospheric air within these spaces will help to determine its suitability for breathing. Tests to be carried out on the sampling air most importantly include oxygen concentrations, but also combustible gas presence and tests for toxic vapours to identify build ups of those gases. 

Regardless of the duration of stay, OSHA requires all employers to provide an attendant just outside a permit-required space whenever personnel are working within. This person is required to constantly monitor the gaseous conditions within the space and call for rescuers if the worker inside the confined space becomes unresponsive. It is vital to note that at no time should the attendant attempt to enter the hazardous space to conduct a rescue unassisted. 

In restricted areas forced draft air circulation will significantly reduce the build-up of helium, nitrogen or other asphyxiant gas and limit the chances of a fatal exposure. While this strategy can be used in areas with low nitrogen leak risks, workers are prohibited from entering pure nitrogen gas environments without using appropriate respiratory equipment. In these cases, personnel must use appropriate artificially supplied air equipment.