Global helium shortage could deflate party expectations

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- It's the time of the year many folks think about decorating for graduation or Mother's Day parties.

One staple for those celebrations helium-filled balloons. But this year, consumers may find that an international shortage of the gas might put a crimp in their plans for using the floating balloons.

In some cases, they will find significantly higher prices for helium balloons compared to last year.

In some instances, they may find party stores no longer have stocks of the gas.

The Dollar Tree store in Wynnefield Heights managed to get a new supply and was expecting to sell its first helium balloons since February.

The Party City store in South Philadelphia was not selling helium balloons on Friday. It apparently had only enough gas to fill orders that were made weeks ago for pickup this weekend.

In contrast, Dino's Party Center in South Philadelphia was selling helium balloons and doing a brisk business.

Owner Dave Cattai estimates the store sells 2,000 to 3,000 helium balloons a week.

He has three suppliers of the gas. He says they have been good at getting him tanks in the midst of what has been described as a global helium shortage. But given the current scarcity, costs have gone up.

Cattai says a cylinder that cost $75 to $80 ten years ago cost about $125 last year.

"Now it costs $200," he said.

Changes in the wholesale helium market over the last several years have led to issues of scarcity.

Helium is used in many areas besides inflating balloons. It is used in scientific research where super cold conditions are needed. It is critical in the manufacture of semiconductors used in smartphones and many other electronic applications.

It is also used in hospital MRI machines.

Customer Margaret Harding of South Philadelphia purchased a bunch of festive, colorful balloons for a Mother's Day gathering.

She noted the increased costs.

"Things like balloons and flowers bring a log of happiness to people," she said. "You know, it would be sad if we didn't have this anymore."

A national chain, Party City, said the shortage has "negatively impacted our latex and metallic balloon categories."
A statement by the company said it had signed a letter of agreement for a new source of helium.

If the deal comes to fruition the company indicated the additional supply should substantially eliminate the shortfall it is currently experiencing.
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