Helium balloons disappear

Shortage of helium leaves balloons grounded

By Rachael Rees / The Bulletin

The sight of balloons floating above grocery aisles, tethered to antennas at car dealerships and decorating children's birthday parties could soon vanish, along with the national helium supply.

“As far as we know, we could see the end of (helium-filled) balloons,” said Phil Price, branch manager of Airgas Inc. in Bend,one of two major Central Oregon helium suppliers.

While a change in federal law has made helium supplies an issue for more than a decade and led to steady price increases, the shortage has only recently hit Bend.

Businesses that sell helium-filled balloons are realizing what's left in their helium tanks might be the last for a while.

Representatives from Airgas and Norco Inc. — national suppliers that distribute helium in Central Oregon — said they are experiencing a reduction in helium from their suppliers and can only sell it for medical and research uses.

Helium is the second-most-abundant element in the universe, according to the National Academy of Sciences, but is relatively scarce on Earth because its properties make it hard to contain. It's primarily extracted from natural gas fields.

It is vital to military and space research and used in magnetic resonance imaging devices, the welding industry, optical fiber manufacturing and, of course, to make balloons float.

“What we're hearing in the industry is there is no helium allotment for party-style balloons that are going to be on the market anytime soon,” Price said. “As of right now, it should be considered a rare commodity.”

The shortage stems from passage of the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, which called for the end of federal government helium production and the sale of federal helium reserves by 2015.

“The sell-down of federally owned helium, which had originally been purchased to meet the nation's critical needs, is coming at a time when demand for helium by critical and noncritical users has been significantly increasing, especially in foreign markets,” according to the 2010 congressional testimony of professors Charles Groat and Robert Richardson, the co-chairmen of a committee studying the impact of the 1996 law.

Selling off the reserve “has adversely affected critical users of helium and is not in the best interest of U.S. taxpayers or the country,” according to the testimony.

It has left Doris Dilday, the owner of Donner Flower Shop in Bend, with some of the last helium available in Bend for filling balloons. She received her last tank from Norco in the spring.

“When I ordered (helium) the last time, nobody said, 'Hey, this is going to be your last tank,' ” she said. “I was getting ready to put in another balloon order, but I won't need balloons if I can't get helium.”

For the last month, Dilday said, callers have been asking if she still sells helium-filled balloons because other stores have stopped.

“Prices have gone way up for helium. It has doubled in the last five years,” she said. “My thought was people aren't carrying helium anymore because of the cost, not because you can't get it anymore and there's a short supply.”

Dilday said she has about a quarter of a tank left. When it's gone, that's it, said Dawn Waddell, an employee at the Newport Avenue shop.

“After that, we're done,” Waddell said. “We're not going to be able to get it — period. It's not available anymore.”

Donner Flower Shop isn't the only store getting low on its helium supply. Five out of seven flower, grocery and party stores contacted Monday and Tuesday by The Bulletin were out of helium, representatives said. The other two said they were using the last of their supplies.

“We've been out (of helium) for about three weeks,” said Rhianna Kremer, manager at Party & Cards on Southeast Third Street in Bend. “The demand has been crazy. Probably eight out of 10 people are looking for balloons.”

Kremer said the store still offers air-filled balloons, but doesn't expect to have any helium-filled balloons until October.

Marty Fish, executive director for the Kansas-based International Balloon Association, said the nonessential needs for helium are the first to be cut off, starting with balloons.

“Some of the national chains that have big accounts with large quantities of helium that have airtight contracts, are still getting helium,” she said. “But the mom and pops of the world are definitely suffering.”

The balloon industry is having to reinvent itself, she said. Decorators, event planners and party stores have to be creative so they don't depend on helium.

Fish said the association is working to educate retailers about alternatives like air-filled balloons so they are able to supply the balloon-loving public.