The ONS has revealed the number of deaths involving helium has risen from two in 2007 to 42 in 2011. By comparison there were just seven cannabis-related deaths recorded last year, with ecstasy involved in 13 deaths.
Almost all of those who died, and had helium mentioned in their record of death, were registered as suicides.
And the ONS, in its document titled ‘Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales’, believe the number of deaths mentioning helium reported in the statistical bulletin is “likely to be an understatement”.
It says this is due to some deaths involving helium having an “underlying cause of death as hanging, strangulation and suffocation” and are, therefore, not included in the database.
Some believe the dramatic rise could be attributed to the proliferation of ‘how to’ suicide websites. Papyrus, an anti-suicide group, has condemned these sites and has called for more to be done to tackle this issue.
Stephen Habgood, Papyrus’ chairman of the board of trustees, has been working for the organisation following the death of his son - who committed suicide by using helium in March 2009.
Speaking to gasworld, he said, “Inhaling helium is seen as fun as you get the squeaky voice. But people don’t realise it is also used by some for suicide.”
“We have asked for there to be caution raised when someone purchases just helium. Many people don’t realise the biggest killer of young people is suicide.”
“To stop this increase in deaths from helium misusage, we all need to be working together and making everyone aware that it is happening and more needs to be done to tackle this problem.”
In the September 2010 issue of gasworld, it featured an in-depth analysis of the misuse of gases and spoke to the Chief Executive of the British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA), Doug Thornton, which has been working tirelessly with the Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).
Reflecting on the recent media spotlight on the ONS statistics, he said, “The ACMD is the body responsible for classifying things like drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act and thereby rendering them illegal. But it also deals with public awareness campaigns and research.”
“We have made very clear to them that we do not want to see helium or nitrous oxide sales made illegal (and thereby inhibit the bona-fide uses) but we have asked for their help and influence on three fronts.”
“The first is to help us persuade the National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers (NABAS) to put suitable warning labels on helium balloons. The second is to encourage the NHS to better secure nitrous oxide in hospitals.”
“And the last matter is to persuade eBay to stop listing the numerous small cartridges of nitrous oxide.”
The Papyrus group operates a freephone confidential helpline for young people to call who are at risk of suicide or are concerned about someone else.
The number is 0800 068 41 41.