Helium Shortage Deflating To Balloon Buyers
Last weekend I got a call from my sister-in-law in California. She had just returned from a party supply store, and she was a little upset. Her daughter’s 8th birthday was coming up and she was looking for some balloons. The conversation went something like this:
- Her: “I couldn’t buy any birthday balloons.”
- Me: “Really?”
- Her: “Did you know there’s a helium shortage?”
- Me: (laughing)
- Her: “Don’t laugh at me. I’m serious. This is serious.”
- Me: (still laughing) “I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing because, well, helium is a funny thing (I was thinking of those funny voices people make when they breathe it in).”
- Her: “Well, it’s not funny to me. It’s just one more thing the government is controlling. And I can’t buy any balloons. You better do a story about it.”
- Me: “Right now? (It was a Sunday afternoon) I’m at home watching Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
- Her: “You’re still laughing at me aren’t you? (and then she hung up).”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Turns out she was right. We did do a story about it this week, and there is a helium shortage. And she’s not the only one who’s not laughing about it. We went to Ehrle’s Party Supply in Tulsa to check it out. The owners tell us they’re forced to limit the number of helium orders, and in some cases, turn people down.
Due to the shortage, prices at the store have doubled since February. Floyd Hannah has owned the store for 32 years, and says he hasn’t seen anything like it. Some experts say helium, as we know it, could be gone by 2016. “Somebody that’s born 5 years from now may never really get to enjoy or see the magic of helium-filled balloons,” says Hannah.
Not just for balloons
The ballooning crisis will not just deflate birthday parties. Helium is used in flat-screen TVs and hospital MRI scanners. The gas is critical to MRIs as liquid helium helps cool the magnets.
So we’re being told the second most-abundant element in the universe is in short supply. Lighter than air and nonrenewable, helium is however quite rare on Earth, derived mostly from natural gas deposits. And now recently its grown scarcer.
Emma turned 8 years old yesterday. I asked her mom how the party went. “Great,” she said, “but no helium, just lots of hot air courtesy of her dad.” I didn’t know if I was supposed to laugh or not.