Loriann and Justin Earp thought they were sending their daughter, Ashley Long, to the usual neighborhood sleepover when a popular party prank took her life. Ashley inhaled helium - something any 14-year-old girl might do to make her voice sound like a cartoon character - and died when the gas burst her lungs.
"Everything is good here, Mom, we're just hanging out, having fun," Ashley said early in the evening of Feb. 18, Mrs. Earp recalled. By 10:30 p.m., the Medford, Ore., family was in a hospital learning that Ashley died when she inhaled helium through a pressurized tank.
It is a common trick wherever helium-filled balloons are found, but it can have deadly consequences, according to Harvey Weiss, director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. The group will hold a news conference Thursday in Washington to highlight the dangers. Mr. Weiss said most people are unaware of the risks and of the culture of "huffing" - the abuse of household substances by inhaling their vapors.
"That is an abuse of helium, quite frankly, because they are not using it for a medical purpose," said Rose Ann Soloway, a clinical toxicologist at the National Capital Poison Center.
Helium is an inert gas, reacting with very little other elements. The danger to humans comes when helium displaces oxygen in the lungs.
"Inhaling helium starves the brain and other body organs of oxygen," Ms. Soloway said. The effects include a "fast heart rate, fast breathing rate, euphoria, low blood pressure, headache, dizziness, nausea, anxiety, irregular heart rhythms, heart attack, seizures, coma and death."
The lack of oxygen can also create a temporary high. But that is not because of the gas, but because users are not receiving any oxygen.
Thursday's news conference will kick off National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week, an attempt to spotlight the abuse of household items when people "sniff" or "huff" the vapors, Mr. Weiss said.
The number of cases in which people require medical attention for inhaling helium remains relatively low, so low that the American Association of Poison Control Centers groups helium with other simple asphyxiates (gases that displace oxygen) in its National Poison Data System annual report.
The report found that 2,600 people called their local poison control center regarding simple asphyxiation in 2010. This group included people who came in contact with too much helium, and other gases such as carbon monoxide and methane.
The report shows that only 9 percent of those calls were for people who had intentionally inhaled, such as when someone put a helium-filled balloon or tank to their lips.
Of the 2,600 cases, 0.6 percent faced serious situations. Fifteen experienced life-threatening effects from the asphyxiation. Only three died.
But Ashley's death shocked her parents. They were told she was going to a slumber party at a neighborhood friend's house. But instead, she and her companions piled into the car of her friend's older sister, who proceeded to take the group of girls to her house, give them alcohol and marijuana, and bring out a tank of helium.
Ashley's parents say they never knew their daughter to experiment with alcohol or marijuana, recalling her as a girl who wrote Bible verses on her calendar and aspired to become a marine biologist. She was a girl who wanted to fit in and caved to peer pressure, they said.
Now, the parents say they want their daughter's story to serve as a cautionary tale. They have started a foundation, Ashley's Hope, to raise awareness about the dangers of helium.
"We are trying to make a difference so that other families don't have to go through this," Mr. Earp said.
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