Helium Prices Hit the Roof, Leaving Balloon Sales Deflated

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Because of a worldwide shortage of helium, prices for the lighter-than-air element have ballooned. They’ve hit the ceiling, gone sky high, been launched into the stratosphere. Has the quota for bad puns been met yet?

Helium does a lot more than make balloons soar and give you an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” voice. Among other things, the substance is used in MRI machines, high-tech manufacturing, and physics research. A shortage of helium is not a subject to be taken lightly. (That’s the last one, promise.)

Helium is usually generated as a byproduct of natural gas mining, and we’re currently in the middle of a shortage of helium, due partly because the recession has slowed natural gas production. About three-quarters of the world’s helium is produced in the U.S., according to the Kansas City Star, and while production is supposed to be increased by the end of the year in spots ranging from Wyoming to Russia, the element is expected to be in short supply for months, if not years.

(MORE: There’s a Helium Shortage On, and It’s Affecting More than Just Balloons)

Nevada’s Elko Daily Free Press reports that balloons account for only 10% of the helium market. Costs associated with MRIs, research and medical imaging, and semiconductor manufacturing may all rise because they use helium.

But what about the really important thing, i.e., balloons? Many business owners say they’re doing their best to avoid passing along higher costs to customers. Often, though, there’s simply not much helium to come by, leaving balloon sellers as grumpy as Carl Fredricksen, the old curmudgeon (and balloon enthusiast) voiced by Ed Asner in the Pixar movie “Up.” Florists in Nevada report that they’re plain out of helium, with balloons sadly “remaining deflated and gathering dust” about stores, according to the Elko Daily Free Press.

Earlier this summer, party stores in Canada said that the price for a tank of helium had increased 300%. “We’re told hospitals get it first, then manufacturing and we get what’s left,” one balloon retailer said, while explaining that he had to raise prices due to the helium crisis.

In Kansas City, one balloon decorator said he’s been forced in situations to (the horror!) use regular air instead of helium. When helium is absolutely necessary, prices are adjusted to the current marketplace. A pair of 50-foot balloon arches used in a charity race are triple the price that they were a few years ago.

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Florists, party stores, and decorators hope that the supply of helium increases by the Halloween-St. Patrick’s Day period, which is peak season for balloon sales. As for Valentine's Day, which is usually the year’s biggest day for balloons, sales of flowers and chocolates will probably be more pumped-up than usual come February 14, 2013.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.
VIDEO: Earth Is Running Out of Helium