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Helium shortage deflates balloon sales

Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 9:50 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 10:50 a.m. CDT

Well-wishers for moms, dads and grads may have to find an alternative to giving helium balloons this year as a global helium shortage worsens.

“I honestly don’t know when it started, but we felt the effects of it over Valentine’s Day,” said Sally Mullis, owner of DeKalb Florist. “We couldn’t get any more from our supplier and he put us on a wait list.”

“Every day we have somebody who wants a birthday balloon attached to an arrangement and I can’t help them,” Mullis added.

Helium is a byproduct of natural gas processing, which has slowed recently as a result of the slow economy and production delays at some natural gas facilities. The U.S. government regulates domestic helium distribution and storage, and last month Congress debated the future and function of the Federal Helium Reserve.

“Imagine a world without balloons,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., during debate about the reserve in the House of Representatives last month.

“I was told that the hospitals have to get it first, and whatever is left goes to everybody else,” said Audrey Stevens, manager of the Super One Dollar Store in Sycamore. 

Along with filling balloons, helium is used to cool MRI scanners in hospitals, and in many industrial processes and high-tech manufacturing.

Stevens said that for the time being, her supplier can still get tanks of helium for her, although she sometimes has to wait a week to get a new tank after one is emptied.

The store has raised the price of filling a Mylar balloon from $1 to $1.50.

Fortunately, helium balloon sales are a small part of many florists’ business.

“A lot of florists like us will inflate the Mylar balloons (with air) and put them on a stick and put it into an arrangement,” Mullis said.

Daniel L. Flynn, chairman of the Balloon Council, is optimistic about future helium production and believes the shortage “will likely ameliorate by the end of 2013.”

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