Since 1901, the British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA) has been the not-for-profit UK membership body for this critical ‘invisible industry.’ Its mission is to ensure safety in the use, storage, transportation and handling of industrial, food and medical gases.
Companies which manufacture and supply these vital gases are also committed to the highest standards of safety and quality, which is why they choose to become members of the BCGA.
In line with its strong safety position, the BCGA is often the voice of the industry where matters of concern arise.
Currently of issue to the BCGA is the misuse of helium and liquid nitrogen, which are both critically important gases.
This white paper from the BCGA has been produced to provide insight and raise awareness of the concerns it shares in these two areas, and calls for action to address them.
The Dangers of Helium Misuse
Helium has an invaluable role to play in society, particularly in medical and scientific use.
It forms a vital component in the world’s MRI scanners, is used in the space industry and supports the use of security scanners. These are just a small selection of the many important ways helium helps us.
But it is being misused, and many people are unaware of the potentially dangerous consequences. Many of us have heard of, and even tried, the ‘squeaky voice’ trick using helium gas from a balloon.
However, while the inhalation of helium and other gases is often depicted in the media as harmless fun, the misuse of this important gas can seriously affect health - and there have been fatalities reported around the world as a result.
Helium is a very light, inert and totally non-toxic gas and is the second lightest element in the universe.
It gives those who inhale it a temporary squeaky voice effect.
Many believe this to be harmless, yet the gas displaces oxygen and the critically important carbon dioxide content from the lungs - and inhalation can be fatal, even with only a small amount inhaled. A couple of breaths can kill.
The Need to Educate on the Risks
Quite simply, the inhalation of any gas, other than air and oxygen, can cause death by asphyxiation and every breath can cause unconsciousness - or worse.
Therefore, helium – or indeed any type of industrial, food or medical gases - should never be inhaled unless under medical supervision, or when being used by trained professionals.
To raise awareness of the issue, the BCGA advocates the use of warning labels with every helium-filled balloon and with every canister of the gas.
The BCGA has also produced guidance on the issue of helium misuse in the form of the L7 leaflet entitled ‘The Dangers of Misusing Gases’ available for free download from the BCGA website.
Broadcasters and entertainers have often been seen misrepresenting the use of helium with the squeaky voice trick, giving the illusion it’s a safe practice, when clearly it is not.
The association has made a number of representations broadcasters and to the entertainment industry, calling for this trick to stop being shown on TV and in the media – and have had positive response from some, particularly the BBC, but indifference from others.
Like helium, nitrogen plays a vital role in a wide-range of applications, including medical, scientific and manufacturing uses.
It needs careful handling. Liquid nitrogen is extremely cold, with a boiling point of -195.8 °C and if handled inappropriately can cause severe cold (cryogenic) burns.
Furthermore, a little liquid nitrogen turns into a lot of gas once it warms up – leading to the potentially dangerous depletion of oxygen levels in the atmosphere if released in a confined space.
Liquid nitrogen has also been used to create a ‘trendy’ fogging effect in food and drinks such as cocktails – and this is an area of great concern to the BCGA.
Drinks laced with liquid nitrogen are not illegal, but are a very bad idea. They can expose under-trained and ill-equipped bar staff, as well as the customers to whom they are sold, to the risk of life-changing cryogenic burns.
Bars, clubs and restaurants have been serving this 'fogging' style drink for some years, but the BCGA strongly urges them to stop – and would like to see a blanket ban on the use of liquid nitrogen in drinks, which can cause severe burns to the hands, throat or stomach.
Liquid nitrogen should only be handled by competent, trained users, exercising extreme caution and using the correct protective equipment.
The devastating impact of this type of gas misuse was reflected in a high-profile case where a Lancashire woman had her stomach removed in a life-saving operation after drinking a cocktail containing the substance at a bar in Lancaster.
Preston Crown Court heard that the woman was served the drink while celebrating her 18th birthday in 2012.
The wine bar involved was subsequently fined £100,000,
Cryo-cookery (or molecular gastronomy)
Liquid nitrogen can also be used to create some novel and interesting foods – by properly trained and equipped chefs.
But, sadly, certain celebrity chefs have appeared on TV pouring liquid nitrogen from open jugs, with no gloves or eye protection and, to some extent, encouraging the public to want to try, for example, to make their own super-smooth ice-cream that way.
In turn this leads to the untrained and ill-equipped public trying to source, and sometimes obtain, quantities of liquid nitrogen to take home.
Trying to carry liquid nitrogen in an unsuitable container, such as a closed domestic vacuum flask, glass or plastic bottle pretty well guarantees a serious explosion – and hands and eyesight have been lost as a result.
The BCGA would like to see broadcasters and chefs ensuring that adequate personal protective equipment is seen in use whenever they are demonstrating the use of liquid nitrogen, that the cryogenic burns risk is highlighted and the ‘don’t try this at home’ message is emphasised.
Fogging Effects In Clubs and on Dance Floors
Still on the subject of liquid nitrogen, the BCGA is aware that the old dry-ice (solid CO2) fogging machines of the 1970’s have been replaced in some areas by much more extreme fogging effects.
These are created by the release of liquid nitrogen, or sometimes Liquid CO2. The BCGA concern regarding this situation is that a little liquid can become a lot of gas and possibly lead to the depletion of atmospheric oxygen levels to life-endangering levels.
Therefore, as well as understanding the risks of cryogenic burns in handling the liquefied gases, people who employ these effects need to be conversant with and comply with Confined Space Regulations and do a proper and formal Risk Assessment and apply suitable Control Measures.
They also need to consider and properly consult with their insurers regarding Public Liability.
A Safe and Regulated Industry
Liquid nitrogen and helium have critical roles to play in many areas of life across the UK – and it is vital they are manufactured and operate within a safe and highly-regulated industry.
At the core of the BCGA’s role is ‘Mission Safety.’ The association’s members work together on technical, safety, health and environmental issues to achieve high standards of integrity and environmental care, both within their own and customers’ working environments.
The BCGA actively promotes safety practice through its many publications. These publications include codes of practice, guidance notes, technical reports, leaflets and technical information sheets, as well as safety alerts and industry information.
They include the Leaflet ‘L7, The Dangers Of Misusing Gases,’ which features concerns about helium and liquid nitrogen misuse.
BCGA publications are regarded as industry best practice documents by Government Regulators, Competent Authorities and the Enforcement Agencies.
BCGA also participates in the preparation and revision of National, European and International Standards.
Furthermore, regular dialogue is also held between the BCGA and government departments and agencies, standard organisations and other trade associations to achieve its objectives.
New and better ways to help the UK’s economy, environment and people will continue to drive the compressed gases industry – and safety is key. The combined expertise of the BCGA and its membership will be critical to making this happen – and to ensure this ‘invisible industry’ which is so significant to the UK continues to uphold its important and trusted role in the UK.