Helium balloons should be banned at Christmas as the party favourites are wasting a scarce resource that it vital for modern medical equipment, according to a leading academic.
Dr Peter Wothers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a University of Cambridge chemist, will use this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures to argue that there will be “serious problems” in 30 to 50 years’ time if the lighter-than-air gas continues to be wasted in party balloons.
Helium is a non-renewable gas that is used to cool magnets in MRI scanners in hospitals. It is also mixed with oxygen to make breathing easier for ill patients and can help save new-born babies’ lives.
However, there is currently a global shortage of the gas, which cannot be synthesized. The gas has to be extracted from beneath the earth’s crust and 75 per cent of the world’s helium comes from the US.
Dr Wothers will warn: “The scarcity of helium is a really serious issue. I can imagine that in 50 years time our children will be saying ‘I can’t believe they used such a precious material to fill balloons’.”
Dr Wothers will argue in the lectures that there is currently no sustainable way of making helium artificially and once it is released in the atmosphere, it is gone forever.
“If we keep using it for non-essential things like party balloons, where we’re just letting it float off into space, we could be in for some serious problems in around 30 - 50 years time. The gas is hugely valuable,” he will say.
A spokesman denied that Dr Wothers’ comments will take some of the fun out of Christmas.
“Peter isn’t being a party pooper, rather he is using this year’s lecture series to draw attention to a serious scientific and societal issue: the worldwide scarcity of helium,” the spokesman said.
The Royal Institution’s 2012 Christmas Lectures will be shown on BBC Four on 26, 27 and 28 December.