Teen’s death shows per­ils of he­lium

Most peo­ple un­aware of the risks as­so­ci­ated with ‘huff­ing’ va­pors

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY DANIEL JACK­SON

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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