High Anxiety Over Shortage of Helium

Sharon Hershkwitz-Levy, who owns the Balloon Saloon, a party goods store in Manhattan, is feeling high anxiety over helium.

"You can't have a party without balloons. That's it," she said.

But the lighter-than-air gas that blows up balloons and lifts those famous Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade floats is growing scarce.

In the last three years, prices have more than doubled because, in this case, what goes up does not come down. Like oil, helium is a finite resource and the demand is outstripping the supply.

And helium is used for much more than filling balloons and making funny voices. Helium helps launch space shuttles. It's essential for medical MRIs, flat-screen TVs and for scientific research into super-conductivity.

"Without helium we'd be out of business," said William Halperin, a physics professor at Northwestern University.

More than a third of the world's known supply is stored at the Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas.

Back when dirigibles appeared to be the next big thing, the United States began producing helium from the natural gas fields of Texas. But the government is getting out of that business.

"There's no new sources being brought on line to make up that gap," said Leslie Theiss, manager of the helium reserve.

So conservation is becoming critical. Macy's, for example, recycled the helium from some of its Thanksgiving floats this year.

But the kid's balloon on a string may soon be a rarity and upcoming New Year's celebrations may seem slightly flatter than usual.

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