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Helium shortage hits party balloon season

The nationwide shortage of helium has caused stores

The nationwide shortage of helium has caused stores like The Dollar Store in Seaford, where Matt Masi is a manager, to ration helium-filled balloons. (June 21, 2012) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Parties this summer might fall flat when it comes to one familiar favor — helium balloons.

With June being the peak month for graduation parties, as well as a big month for weddings and other celebrations, Long Island party retailers are feeling deflated by a nationwide helium shortage that began about a month ago.

Stores such as Party City and Dollar Tree have limited the number of balloons customers may purchase, and some have had to turn people away.

"It's really just first-come, first-served; people are running from store to store getting balloons wherever they can," said Susan Mojica, manager of a Dollar Tree in Levittown.

Helium is an unusual resource because the United States has only two sources — a government-owned plant in Amarillo, Texas, and an Exxon Mobil operation in Wyoming.

Leslie Theiss, field manager at the Amarillo plant, said the shortage stems from a growing global demand for helium. The plant supplies 42 percent of the nation's helium and about a third of the supply overseas.

Demand for helium, which must be drilled from the ground, has outstripped supply. "There just aren't enough molecules to go around right now," Theiss said.

Aside from balloons, helium is used in scientific experiments and in MRI machines and flat-screen televisions. Medical and scientific use gets priority. Probably the only effect most people will notice, Theiss said, will be in balloons.

At a Party City in Massapequa, a sign at the balloon order desk informs customers there's a limit of six balloons each. Employee Brandon Theodule said the store usually stocks about 12 helium tanks in June, but is running on half that now.

"We've had a couple of angry customers," he said.

At Pump It Up, a kids' party franchise that gives a balloon to every child who attends, Plainview owner Andrew Schwaeber said they've been trying to conserve helium.

"We're blowing up balloons a little smaller," he said. "We've substituted helium with regular air, and we've tried filling up balloons with mostly helium and a little air."

Local helium supplier AirWeld in Farmingdale said that it had to stop taking on new business because of the shortage.

"Everybody's feeling it right now," vice president Eric Lundquist said. AirWeld has had to raise the price of its tanks 30 percent to 40 percent in six months and is not set to get another helium shipment until July 4. Customers needing helium at the end of this month may have to take fewer or smaller tanks.

Matt Masi, manager of The Dollar Store in Seaford, came in to refill two large tanks but had to settle for a smaller size.

"Balloons are a big part of our business. If we lose helium, it's a catastrophe," he said.

Christina Valle of Massapequa was at Party City trying to buy balloons for her son's christening party.

"Everyone's doing parties, what do you do? Balloons make it nice looking, but I guess we just have to get creative in a crisis," Valle said with a laugh. Her 3-year-old son Donavan, however, seemed less sanguine at hearing balloons might be in short supply.

"He loves balloons," she said. "The kids always fight over them."

From Amarillo to your balloon

Natural gas containing helium, mined by drilling in the Midwest, was pumped to the Amarillo reserve in the 1960s and stored underground.

When needed, this gas is pumped out of the rock and into an extraction plant, where the other gases and hydrocarbons are separated from the helium.

The gas, a concentration of about 75 percent helium and 25 percent nitrogen, is then shipped out to helium refineries that turn the crude helium into a 99-percent helium gas or solution.

Helium is then sold to commercial suppliers, who dole out the tanks to medical and party companies.

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