The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, looking to draw attention to the dangers of "huffing" helium, called Thursday for new restrictions on the sale of the gas - as well as a more serious approach in the media to coverage of its misuse.
"Did you know that a ... 6-year-old can walk into any store in the U.S. and purchase a helium tank? They can't even read the labels on the box," said Justin Earp, the father of Ashley Long, an Oregon 14-year-old who died last month after inhaling helium at a party.
Mr. Earp joined NIPC officials at a press conference in Washington.
People inhale helium as entertainment because the gas used to float balloons raises the pitch of the human voice to cartoon character proportions. The gas is inert, but can displace the oxygen in the lungs, leading to oxygen deprivation - which can cause symptoms ranging from dizziness to blacking out to cardiac arrest.
The NIPC said the data on the number of deaths caused by helium is incomplete, but that the numbers are significant. According to the state of Florida's own statistics, nine people in the state died from inhaling helium in 2010.
Mr. Earp called for tougher laws to keep helium out of the hands of children and teenagers.
"It should be illegal to purchase helium unless you are 21 or are a licensed doctor or anesthesiologist," Mr. Earp said.
Retailers and consumers, however, could cut down on helium risks with a few simple changes, said Harvey Weiss, director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.
Stores could place helium tanks higher up on the shelves, out of the reach of children, he said.
Mr. Weiss said there needs be more awareness of the dangers of helium huffing.
"Sometimes an adult shows them how to do it or that it is fun and acceptable to put a gas in your body. Who would do such a thing? It could be a parent, a teacher, a Scout leader even a youth pastor," said Mr. Weiss.
Brian Dyak, president of Entertainment Industries Council Inc., an organization that encourages the media to address social and health issues, encouraged the entertainment and news industries to educate people about inhalant abuse through their platforms at the press conference.
He distributed a Hollywood tipsheet suggesting to writers that they use their screenplays to educate people about inhalant abuse.
"Avoid using inhalant abuse as a glamorous or socially acceptable or normal behavior," reads the tipsheet. "Also, try to show abuse with the negative consequences that might accompany such use."
The education could get subtle. The handout suggested that the message could take the forms of inhalant-prevention posters on the set, similar to the product placement some companies employ.
But Walter Olsen, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said that for years people have been playing with helium and science teachers have inhaled the gas to demonstrate its effects on the vocal chords. Anything can be abused and he suggests knowing the risks instead of making policy or passing law.
"Small risk is worth knowing about, but it's not worth rearranging our whole lives around," Mr. Olsen said.
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