Local Businesses Feel Effects of Helium Shortage

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COLUMBIA - A shortage of the element helium has left balloons falling flat and local businesses scrambling for extra supplies of the squeaky-voice maker.

Despite being the second-most abundant element on the planet, the United States has been hit with the effects of a helium shortage, which started about two years ago.

A-1 Party and Event Rental rents out helium tanks to customers for use at parties and events.

"We used to be able to rent large tanks to our customers, now we can only rent small ones. We've also had to raise prices to accommodate those needs," said Elizabeth Hensley of A-1 Party and Event Rental.

She says the business increased rental price per tank from $32 to $49.95 since the helium shortage struck.

Helium isn't just used to make balloons fly high. The element is used in MRI machines, scientific experiments and in the production of televisions and lasers.

The reason for the shortage can be linked to several things. In 1996, Congress passed a law which phased out the National Helium Reserve, located in Texas, and began selling off the element due to reserve's mounting debt. Distribution of the element became mostly privatized after Congress passed that law.

"Whenever you privatize materials, it affects prices...Helium is a commodity that can be bought and sold," said University of Missouri Chemistry Instructor Phil Silverman.

The shortage has also been linked to a decline in global helium harvesting and an increase in demand for the element. According to Silverman, the United States produces about 70% of the world's helium supply.

"We're like the Saudi Arabia of helium," said Silverman.

The University of Missouri Chemistry Department uses helium in its NMR machine, or Nuclear Magnetic Resonance machine. The machine is similar to an MRI machine for bodies, but instead of examining human tissue, it examines elements. Silverman said they have not felt the effects of the shortage in the labs.

A representative from University of Missouri Health Care also said they have not seen a shortage either. Since hospitals and scientists are first in line for the element, helium supplies to flower shops and party stores are the first ones to feel the effects of the helium shortage.

Hensley said A-1 Party and Event Rental is allotted two large helium tanks a month by their helium supplier.

"They want the medical community to get the helium before places like us where it's not as necessary," said Hensley.

According to the International Balloon Association, the price of helium increased about $10 from $64.75 per cubic foot in 2010 to $74 per cubic foot in 2011.