In addition to party supplies, the helium shortage is also negatively impacting medical and technological advancements.

By Emily VanSchmus
May 13, 2019

It turns out there is a global shortage of helium—and the problem goes way beyond a lack of party balloons. Last Thursday, Party City issued a press release stating they’d be closing 45 stores around the country. The statement cited the global helium shortage as a reason for a loss of revenue—and while the CEO has since said the helium shortage is not directly related to the chain's decision, the store closings have brought national attention to the issue.

Image courtesy of Getty.

So, what exactly is helium, and what is it used for, other than filling party balloons? Helium is a natural resource that usually exists in the ground and must be captured by experts before it can be used to inflate balloons. It's the second most available element in the world, but containing it is time-consuming and extremely difficult—because it’s a clear gas that rises to the atmosphere as soon as it’s released. Because of the high demand for helium in recent years, we are using it up faster than it can be captured. There's no way for scientists to chemically create helium, so once it's gone, it's gone.

Related: Balloons Are More Deadly to Animals Than Plastic Straws

While this is certainly bad news for the party supply community, the shortage actually has much larger global implications, according to a report written by a senior research scientist from Colorado State University. Helium is used for scientific and medical advancements, such as producing magnetic fields for brain cell research. It’s a key element in operating an MRI machine and is also used to create almost all digital devices, like smartphones, computers, and televisions. It’s even used to clean the fuel tanks of space shuttles.

Because helium has such unique properties, it's become increasingly useful in the medical and technology fields.  But as we find more uses for helium, the supply is quickly running out. Robert Richardson, a physics professor from Cornell University (who won a Nobel prize for his work studying helium), explained the gas has been produced by the earth for 4.7 billion years—and humans have used almost all of it in the last 100 years. In 2010, he predicted the world would run out within 25 to 30 years. If he is correct, helium-filled party balloons will be obsolete by 2040.

And while the shortage has been years in the making, it’s only recently gained national attention. We use devices made by helium every day, but perhaps the most widely known use for the gas is filling balloons. Party City’s website has a whole page dedicated to the helium shortage, which warns consumers that the party supplier may not be able to keep up with demands. “Helium supply has always been a little up in the air (pun intended),” according to the site. Their statement points to party decorating ideas that don’t use helium, like making a DIY balloon garland.  

The chain also referenced the shortage in the announcement of its store closings.  In the opening line of Thursday’s press release, Party City’s Chief Executive Officer James Harrison stated that the helium shortage negatively impacted Party City’s latex and metallic balloon categories, but went on to explain how the company plans to combat the shortage. “We have signed a letter of agreement for a new source of helium which, subject to final execution of a definitive contract, would provide for additional quantities of helium beginning this summer and continuing for the next 2.5 years,” he stated. Harrison later said that the closings are "completely unrelated" to the shortage. 

Harrison also said the new source “should substantially eliminate the shortfall we are experiencing” which means helium-filled balloons won’t be disappearing completely anytime soon. There are currently 870 Party City locations in the US and Canada, and locations of the closures have not yet been released.

To do your part in helping to combat the shortage, we recommend choosing party decorations like DIY party streamers or colorful string lights, that don’t use helium at all.

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