A shortage of one of the world’s most abundant elements may force some party hosts across the country to tone down their decor for an unpredictable amount of time.
Current legislation mandates that the country’s remaining supply of helium — an odorless, colorless, gas best known for sending party balloons in flight — be sold off at “fire sale” to repay a $1.3 billion debt to the U.S. Treasury department, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
But because helium has a variety of uses — ranging from filling balloons and pressurizing gas for rockets to welding — some businesses that use and sell the gas are suffering.
Aero Rental, a party store and rental facility on Gilbert Street in Iowa City, ran out of helium last week. The store was forced to stop renting tanks in March because of the shortage, and now can no longer fill the balloons it sells.
“The helium source is out and we don’t really know if it’s going to be back again or if it will be back next year,” said Becky Baumgartner, who works in the party department at Aero Rental. “We handed out free balloons for 36 years to the kids, and four years ago we stopped doing that when the price of helium went up.”
Baumgartner said the store has since stopped ordering balloons, adding they will continue to sell their current supply until they run out. During graduation season, she said, the store was forced to sell the balloons without helium and direct customers to other businesses that were able to obtain the gas.
Before the shortage, the store sold approximately 200 helium-filled balloons a weekend.
She said the reaction from customers has been mixed.
“Some people seem like they don’t listen to the news,” Baumgartner said. “It was on the world news that there was a shortage, but some people think that they can find it somewhere else. So there are those that are okay with it, and there are others who think they can find helium somewhere else.”
And though the availability of helium continues to dwindle, some larger stores, like Hyvee, are still able to get ahold of it — though they are often receiving it by the half-tank, rather than a full tank.
“I don’t think we’ll ever run out (of helium), but the tanks we have now are so much smaller than what we are used to,” said Laurel Hollopeter, floral manager at the Hyvee at 812 S. First Ave. in Iowa City. “Somehow our company is able to source them …We have a standing order on those and we’re getting several every week and we haven’t run out since they first talked about the shortage in January.”
Hollopeter said the store has had to increase the cost to fill balloons occasionally, since the shortage began. He added, however, that he doesn’t think the store has lost money as a result of the shortage.
“We always tell the customers before they purchase them the cost on them,” Hollopeter said. Some decide not to get as many, or some opt to get more of the foil balloons because they last longer than the latex.”
Though helium also is used in the medical industry to cool MRI machines, local hospitals have not yet been affected, as they have first priority when it comes to where remaining helium is transferred.
Tom Moore, spokesman for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said the hospital has been isolated from the shortage issue due to a contract negotiation with its vendor.