Helium distribution problems could cut supplies by one-third this year…critical uses such as MRI machines take precedence…and cities have begun banning helium balloon releases, which can cause power line disruptions and wildlife deaths
June 13, 2019
Texas may be one of the main worldwide sources of helium gas, but demand is now outstripping supply, while many don’t realize there are critical uses for the gas — and a possible state-by-state ban of helium balloons on the horizon.
Party City is the retailer where many buy their birthday balloons, but the chain is closing a number of its 870 stores, not because of the helium undersupply but because of falling sales — still managers acknowledge the shortage as a problem.
“Helium supply has always been a little up in the air (pun intended),” a statement on the Party City website says.
It’s not so much that there’s a helium shortage — it’s one of the most abundant gases on Earth — but there’s a distribution problem as helium suppliers dwindle in US production and supply moves overseas.
And there are very serious uses for helium, and a shortage is expected to get worse this year before any improvement next year.
There are only three sources for 75% of the world’s helium — natural gas mining by ExxonMobil in Wyoming and the National Helium Reserve in the Texas Panhandle, along with Ras Laffan Industrial City in Qatar, the site says.
The gas from these supplies, however, appears to be dwindling, especially in the Panhandle.
Helium is critical for use in MRI machines, welding, fiber optics, gas chromatography, automobile air bags, deep sea diving and military machinery among other operations.
Helium shortages have been cyclical over the past several years, and while industrial uses get first-serve on helium, smaller hospitals that don’t procure the gas in large quantities may be vulnerable later in the year when the current 15% shortage grows to about 35% by August.
New sources of helium are coming online, but the first won’t be until 2020, when a large processing plant in Qatar is expected to go online, followed in 2021 by another in Siberia.
By the time the shortage lifts, though, there could be a widespread ban on helium balloons.
Environmental groups say sea wildlife and land animals are choking in great numbers on such balloons, thinking they are part of food supplies, “causing intestinal blockage, or they get entangled in any attached strings, both leading to a slow and agonizing death.”
So far, at least one state has legislation pending that bans helium balloons, and there are movements afoot in other states to follow suit.
Not the least of such problems is the release of metallic balloons into the air — they conduct electricity and when they brush against power lines they can create electrical surges and start fires.
They, and even regular plastic balloons, have also been known to be the cause of localized, temporary electrical blackouts.
These problems, coupled with environmental concerns, are causing anti-helium balloon sentiment to swell.
That’s led to some 30 cities across the US banning the release of helium balloons such as the annual massive release at the Indianapolis 500, according to the New Jersey Hills newspaper.
There’s even a Florida group called, “Balloons Blow, Don’t Let Them Go.”