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The End of Balloons

With helium reserves running low, some scientists are calling for drastic measures, including the reduction of balloon use

Scientists are starting to speak publicly about a lurking menace. This danger hovers in the background, silently stealing valuable resources from medical machinery.

The dastardly culprit? Helium balloons.

Yes, the innocuous brightly-colored harbingers of joy that adorn birthday parties are, according to some scientists, a public menace.

While helium is used in medical machines like MRIs as well as industrial tools, like welders, people are most familiar with it as force behind levitating party decorations. But with helium reserves running low, some scientists are calling for drastic measures, including the reduction of balloon use.

Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson has been calling for a reduction for years now. UK Professor Tom Welton agrees, as he told the BBC:

“The reason that we can do MRI is we have very large, very cold magnets – and the reason we can have those is we have helium cooling them down.”You’re not going into an MRI scanner because you’ve got a sore toe – this is important stuff.” When you see that we’re literally just letting it float into the air, and then out into space inside those helium balloons, it’s just hugely frustrating. It is absolutely the wrong use of helium.”

Helium is mined as a byproduct of natural gas production. Pockets of the gas have gathered in the crust over millions of years, but like any finite resource, they are slowly running out. The U.S. has a large portion of these reserves, but our supply isn’t unlimited.

An article from the Deseret News explains the history of helium storage in the United States:

“The Federal Helium Reserve currently supplies 42 percent of the nation’s helium and about one-third of the world’s demand…

The U.S. Navy began storing billions of cubic feet of helium in the Federal Helium Reserve decades ago at a time when dirigibles and barrage balloons were major military assets. In 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act that gave the BLM management authority over the helium reserve. The agency was directed to begin selling the gas to private industry, a move aimed at paying off $1.3 billion in debt associated with the helium reserve.”

And a future without helium-filled balloons isn’t that far away. The shortage is already having a significant impact on small businesses. The owner of a party story in Cumbria, U.K., lamented the shortage to a local newspaper:

“Helium is massively important to the business, a party without balloons is like roast beef without Yorkshire pudding.”

In Ohio, party stores are setting limits on the number of balloons customers can buy. In Boardman, Ohio, a store limits customers to 12 balloons per visit, and in Springboro, store owner Mark Specht laments to the Dayton Daily News that prices have gone up by 145 percent in the past five months:

“I’ve done this for 24 years and this is the worst it has ever been,” Specht said. “When we do corporate or wedding décor, we’re trying to promote air-filled designs and products because helium is just getting so darn expensive.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

The “Indomitable” MRI
Picture of the Week—Iron in the Sun’s Corona

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