Clowns, welders and surgeons could find their work getting more expensive and, if their work includes balloon animals, downright impossible.

A worldwide shortage of helium supplies has hit the floating canary in the homecoming parade: party supply stores. This week, helium orders were significantly reduced for a number of stores that sell the gas for use in party favors such as decorative balloons.

"It's a nightmare," said Tom Grassley, who owns PartyLand stores along the Wasatch Front. "It's so weird to think about it — helium has always been around and has always been a part of people's lives — but now it's just gone."

Grassley said that this week an order for helium was cut significantly, and a search for other distributors proved fruitless. A big part of the problem for party stores is that, in the whole scheme of helium use, balloons, while high-visibility, are pretty much the lowest priority.

According to the Bureau of Land Management's Web site, helium is used for surgical procedures such as an MRI, industrial welding operations and microchip production. It is even used to help to cool the space shuttle before re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

The federal government manages the nation's helium reserves — which also constitute a big majority of the world's supply for helium — and sells the crude helium, which is a by-product of natural gas extraction, to private refineries. Part of the helium supply problem is that some domestic private refiners have recently gone temporarily off-line for repairs. Meanwhile, new refineries being built in Qatar and Albania have been delayed — deflating an already maxed-out helium market with supply shortages.

Over the past few years, there have been signs of the impending shortage, especially after Hurricane Katrina shut down Gulf Coast refineries, which included helium production facilities. Demand has also been increasing, although the amount of crude available has not kept pace because any increased helium production at natural gas wells would "result in adverse impacts to the gas field, wells, compressors and other equipment," according to an article posted on the BLM site titled "Where Has All The Helium Gone?"

This week the shortage has moved from possibility to reality, especially for customers such as Grassley. A major national distributor, PraxAir, bumped their helium prices as much as 30 percent. Other distributors are reducing current orders and refusing new orders.

"In our company, and this is normal for the entire industry, we are not taking any new customers," said Richard Lofgren, owner of Denver-based U.S. Welding, which distributes helium throughout the Intermountain West. "We're having a hard time meeting our existing customers' needs."

For companies such as U.S. Welding, it is "a significant issue," Lofgren said. But it's also "worldwide, not just in the United States or the West."

Not everyone is feeling the pinch, at least not yet. Darren Crowley, a spokesman for Intermountain Healthcare, said that the manufacturers of their MRI machines have not seen a reduction in supplies or significantly increased costs.

"We've really seen no impact on hospitals in the Intermountain Healthcare operation," he said.

View Comments

But there are very real impacts, especially for the entertainment supplies that Grassley sells.

This weekend, for instance, PartyLand was planning on inflating a five-foot "cloudbuster" balloon over their new store in Lehi but had to look for different ways to advertise after they realized they did not have the helium to fill the balloon.

"It's like Subway running out of bread," he said, noting that balloon sales comprise as much as 10 percent of the stores' sales. "You really need helium if you're a party supply store."


Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.