Nationwide helium rationing causes crisis for balloonists, other industries
by Stephen McDill
Published: February 8,2013
Instead of a cute arrangement of romantic balloons, you may want to just settle for chocolate and flowers this Valentine’s Day.
The global shortage of helium has led to nationwide rationing of the natural resource and the costs are being passed to the customer. That giant tank you see in the corner of the grocery store is having to last longer and longer with each passing month.
Rose Reynolds with A Balloon Basket in Jackson said the cost of a standard helium-filled arrangement has gone up 25 percent. Today, one micro-foil helium balloon goes for $5.
The florist inside the Standard Life Building said her distributor across town is pressuring her to buy smaller helium tanks since the cost has doubled in recent years.
Reynolds also works with party planning customers with tight budgets and often uses hand pumps to mix regular air with helium to cut costs. Some stores skip helium altogether and are selling balloons on sticks or building regular air arrangements.
Helium is a byproduct of natural gas and the current crisis is one of supply and demand, with the global demand for helium for everything from balloons to MRI machines far outpacing the noble gas’ scarce supply.
“Prices have gone up. Anytime we get an increase we have no choice but to pass it along to our customers,” said Steve Atkins of Memphis-based gas supplier NexAir. “We expect cost pressure to continue. There’s a major supply and demand in-balance.”
One reason is that helium is a finite, non-renewable resource and there are only a few places in the world to get it, according to Atkins.
The United States produces 75 percent of the world supply of helium with most of it coming from the National Helium Reserve in New Mexico. First used for airships and later NASA, helium was managed by the federal government, a plan that will end when they sell off the Amarillo reserve in 2015.
Russia is poised to be a player in the extraction market but its prospective deposits are very remote and would need the best technology and infrastructure. Other global competitors could start in the Middle East, Canada and China. Until then, the dwindling helium stores in the U.S. will be rationed.
Problems with the extraction industry started years ago, according to Elam and now the balloon decorating industry is at the point where its just not readily available.
While helium is used for LCD television sets and chemistry labs and by welders and air conditioning manufacturers, its the medical community that is currently prioritized.
Liquid helium is used to cool magnets in the MRI units at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. UMMC imaging services director Daryle Heath said that twenty percent of the world’s supply of helium is used to cool MRI units — an overheated magnet can break a unit and cost a hospital millions of dollars.
The helium shortages have caused many distributors to set up service agreements with the medical industry. Heath said operating costs have gone up as high as 25 percent and it has become much more difficult to get helium cryogen fills in a timely fashion. “Its getting to the point where if you don’t have a contract you won’t get the helium,” he said.
So before you look for that perfect Valentine’s Day balloon arrangement, here are a few alternatives from some Mississippi women:
“Balloons? No one has given me a balloon since eighth grade. They’re a nice gesture but not a must have. I’d rather have a card.” Audrey Melton, Brandon.
“I’d rather have a nice, quiet home-cooked meal than a balloon.” Danielle Boren, Jackson.
“I like gifts with more thought. As a teacher, balloons are a distraction.” Emily Peters, Brandon.
“I’d rather have flowers.” Amanda Hinckey, Madison.
“Flowers and candy are better in my opinion.” Hannah Johnson, Clinton.
“I’m not a Valentine’s Day person. I think it’s a cheesy holiday. So balloons would make me laugh.” Christian Ratcliffe, Flowood.
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