Helium shortage hits party stores, but MRIs, hospitals are fine - FOX 32 News Chicago

Helium shortage hits party stores, but MRIs, hospitals have enough

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© Ewan Traveler / Flickr © Ewan Traveler / Flickr
CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) -

Rosanne and Mary Byrne walked out of the Party City store in Oak Brook last week holding a dozen red and black helium balloons.

Rosanne Byrne had ordered them in advance for the party celebrating Mary's graduation from Hinsdale Central High School. But when she came to the store to pick them up and decided she would like a few more, the store clerk told her she couldn't have more.

"They were out of helium," Byrne said. "As we were leaving, I said to my daughter, how can a party store be out of helium?"

Employees at the Oak Brook store on Friday said they had two tanks of helium on hand and would need all the helium they contained to fill the orders they already had taken.

People were able to buy the foil balloons already inflated and on display in the store. They also could buy small tanks of helium to fill their own balloons at the site of the event. For example, a tank with enough helium to fill 30 balloons cost $29.99.

Other Party City stores in Countryside and Downers Grove still were selling helium-filled balloons as of Monday. Orders taken that day were guaranteed, a clerk in the Countryside store, at 102 Countryside Plaza, said, but they would be out by this Friday.

None of the Party City stores called were renting helium tanks to customers, as they have done in the past.

Local hospitals, including Adventist Hinsdale and La Grange Memorial hospitals and Loyola University Health System, use helium in its liquid form, to cool MRI equipment, and, as a gas, to treat respiratory, burn, cancer and cardiac patients.

Helium is used to inflate intra-arterial balloon pumps, which improve coronary blood flow.

Another prevalent use is for heliox, a mixture of helium and oxygen, "which speeds up delivery of oxygen to cells in the body," said Jim Wardlow, the medical specialty gas manager for Medox, Ltd., a Chicago-based company that supplies helium and other gas products to area hospitals.

Matt Diamond, equipment specialist for the respiratory department at Loyola's Maywood campus, orders heliox in a mixture of 70 percent helium, 30 percent oxygen.

"It's for our pediatric patients with asthma or other restricted airways," Diamond said, and can be administered by mask or through a ventilator.

As helium is three times lighter than air, it's easier to breath.

Helium also is combined with argon and highly pressurized to treat prostate cancer, Wardlow said. "It's a minimally invasive procedure that freezes and thaws the prostate gland to kill the cancer."

While the known supply of helium is finite, Wardlow believes its reserves are like oil.

"The amount of oil is non-renewable, but there is still plenty of it in abundance," Wardlow said. "There could be other helium sources that we have not discovered yet."

Although the price of helium has gone up 10 to 15 percent in the past four to six months, Wardlow said he and his company Medox have been able to able to meet their customers' needs in the medical field. Their supplier of helium, Airgas, has limited their orders to 70 percent of their usual allocation, but that is primarily to prevent hoarding and meet more customers' needs.

Frank Fishella who owns Unique Balloon Decorating in Willowbrook said the price of helium has about doubled in the past year. Tanks that used to cost $60 to $70 now cost $150. Consequently, he is finding alternative ways to decorate with balloons.

"We use air-fill creations," Fishella said.

Balloons filled with air can be attached to frames to make arches or arranged on posts to make figures, such as a life-size graduate.

Dealerships buy a lot of balloons. Fishella has shown them that he can hang air-filled balloons from the ceiling.

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