Helium Shortage Could Deflate Both Medical Care Efforts and Birthday Party Balloons

With 18 million events and meetings organized throughout the U.S. each year, we often have something to celebrate or a reason to socialize. And it’s a good bet that any time you’re hosting a party, you’re going to have colorful balloons bouncing around. But in light of the helium shortage, it may be a while before you can suck in some of that gas to speak in a comically high voice — and you may even face issues at the doctor’s office, too.

Despite the fact that helium happens to be the second most abundant element in the universe — and that the U.S. is the number one largest supplier of helium worldwide — we’re experiencing a significant shortage on a global scale. The shortage, which began this spring, is likely due to a number of contributing factors. One Exxon Mobile refinery located in Wyoming, for example, was closed this summer due to maintenance, while companies have experienced issues extracting helium in Qatar. A federal helium reserve in Texas has also dwindled for a number of years. And while we often worry about the price and availability of oil, it’s clear that a shortage of helium can have drastic consequences.

When you picture helium, chances are that you think of a bunch of balloons. Certainly, the events industry has faced major hurdles as result of the shortage. Party City has felt the effects, though the company maintains that its decision to shutter 55 stores across the nation is completely unrelated to the impact the shortage has had on sales. Locally owned party suppliers have also been forced to raise prices for helium-filled balloon products– a move with which many consumers may not be on board. Some suppliers are reporting that the price of helium tanks has roughly tripled during the last decade or so — and given the continuing lack of availability, balloon prices may continue to skyrocket.

But helium isn’t used only to make balloons float into the air. The specialty gas market is categorized into two distinct types: pure gases and gas mixtures. Specialty gases, including helium, are readily used in the medical field. It’s a necessary component in industries that deal with car airbags, deep sea diving equipment, cryogenics, fiber optics, cell phones, and MRI machines. In fact, many experts say that as much as 40% of helium demand comes from the medical industry, with the majority being for MRI scanners. If you experience low back pain, known as the single leading cause of disability worldwide, your doctor might recommend you receive an MRI scan — but that will be harder to come by (or at least prohibitively expensive) due to the inaccessibility of helium, which is used to cool down the semiconducting equipment used in these machines. What’s more, helium is used in medical applications to assist those with certain respiratory conditions and to aid in medical research. Without helium, the quality of patient care could be called into question.

But regardless of whether you’re bummed about a lack of balloons or are worried about the state of your healthcare, the helium shortage is a major cause for concern. And while one research team has reportedly discovered a helium gas field in Tanzania, it’s unclear as to whether this solution will turn out to be a viable one. For now, you might want to plan your parties sans balloons and cross your fingers that your health insurance might cover a majority of any costs you could incur.