Don’t try this at home’ are the words we’ve heard uttered countless times on UK TV screens through the years. It’s a phrase usually associated with daring stunts or juvenile japes.
But what about all those broadcasts that slip under the radar, where responsibility gives way to hilarity, and are potentially hazardous? Could there soon be room for a TV show aptly named, When Gases Go Wrong?
It might be funny to play around with nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’ as it’s commonly known. It might make great television to see a popular presenter inhale helium from a party balloon and talk incessantly at high pitch. Or conversely, inspire sulfur hexafluoride and emit a much deeper below.
But playing with gases is no laughing matter, and this is a point that shouldn’t be lost on broadcasting bodies alike.
Safety and sound practice is a subject of huge significance throughout the industrial gases businesses. While it’s something of a concerted and ongoing effort within the industry, an awareness from external bodies and beyond is often invaluable too.
Setting the right example to a televisual audience of millions is therefore essential; but all too often it’s not so much a case of bang goes the theory, as bang goes the responsibility.
This is a subject the British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA) is keen to raise awareness of. In an exclusive interview with gasworld magazine earlier this year, BCGA Chief Executive Doug Thornton said, “It’s the depiction of improper use of industrial gases.”
“During a recent broadcast they had a bath of liquid nitrogen and were flicking it about at each other, with no PPE [personal protective equipment] on, and that’s just irresponsible. Straight after that, we had another instance of conveying the wrong message.”
“You know the squeaky voice helium trick, which isn’t clever and people have died doing it? Well we had the opposite this time – messing around with sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). It’s a gas that’s much denser than air and will make your voice really, really low.”
“In this broadcast they were basically filling a balloon directly from a cylinder, and inhaling it. But that’s even worse than the helium trick – at least helium’s lighter than air and it will come back and up out of you. SF6 though, is just going to lay in your lungs and while your breathing will push it out eventually, you wouldn’t need much to over-do it.”
Thornton was of course referring to relatively recent broadcasts by the UK’s flagship family television channel, during which a careless or at least ‘relaxed’ attitude to handling gases was shown to a potential audience of millions.
The same TV presenter, albeit during separate broadcasts, has been seen inhaling helium from a balloon for comedy effect and was also involved in some care-free handling of liquid nitrogen with a studio guest.
It should be remembered that inhaling helium of 99.95% purity from a balloon can prove a simple asphyxiant in extreme cases.
Helium is less dense than atmospheric air and as a result, will change the timbre or resonance of an individual’s voice when inhaled. The speed of sound in helium is believed to be almost three times that of sound in air. Hence, with the frequency of a gas-filled cavity proportional to the speed of sound in the gas itself, if helium is inhaled it does therefore increase the pitches of the resonances of the vocal tract – and so, a voice of comedy value is projected.
But in severe cases, this can be laced with danger. Although helium is non-toxic and inert, it can act as an asphyxiant by displacing the oxygen-in-air levels below those required to support life. In really extreme examples, helium inhalation could cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, and even death.
Such a situation is incredibly rare. However, it’s about setting the right example and Thornton said, “Does your average 14 year-old, for example, really listen to which gas it is that was inhaled? Or does he just get any old gas cylinder that he can get access to? It’s just bizarre, absolutely irresponsible.”
Throwing liquid nitrogen around on TV, without any PPE is hardly clever either, not to mention posing several Health & Safety questions. Yet that exact scenario has been seen on UK TV screens, seemingly without any safety messages or public warnings during the broadcast.
Liquid nitrogen is valued for its cold nature, as well as its renowned inertness, and is an ideal coolant for many applications, not least for food freezing and novel gastronomy. In its liquid state it may be clear and non-toxic, but it does present other hazards due to its extreme cold and as the gas boil-off expands rapidly.
Exposure to liquid nitrogen or cold nitrogen vapours can cause extensive tissue damage or burns, while asphyxiation is again a concern, due to any possible displacement of oxygen-in-air.
Such potential for injury (or worse) only heightens the sense of irresponsibility and unwanted exposure by certain broadcasts.
Thornton adds, “One might argue back and say, well, kids can’t get hold of liquid nitrogen. But they can. You can get it on the internet, you can get it on ebay, you could probably even go into your school and ask a lab technician for it – it’s not impossible.”
“It infuriates me, it’s just setting the wrong example and kids will try to replicate it.”
Oxygen of publicity
So where do we go from here? It’s clear that the relaxed attitude to, and portrayal of, handling gases is not the kind of message our industry would prefer to be conveying to the general public.
Broadcasts such as those which have caught the eye of the BCGA, offer the oxygen of publicity to a careless approach to safety. The BCGA itself is continually flying the flag for safety, innovation and safe practice and will continue to take this challenge forward to as diverse an audience as possible.
Concluding, Thornton added, “Broadcasters, and especially TV broadcasters, should take note of the fact that gases have their hazards and in particular, pressure has its hazards.”
“The squeaky voice helium trick and the SF6 voice trick are just totally irresponsible things to broadcast.”