The second most abundant element in the universe is sure hard to come by these days.
A global shortage of helium — that lighter-than-air gas — has grounded blimps, canceled balloon releases and threatens to deprive a generation of children of artificially squeaky voices.
"We have never seen the supply just disappear like this," said Barry Lasky, owner of Hi-Ho-Helio, a party supply store in Creve Coeur.
Retailers have seen prices rise by as much as 40 percent in the past weeks. Lasky receives as many as 20 calls a day from customers wanting to rent helium tanks. But he's now only able to get one or two tanks a week and has had to put people on a waiting list.
SHORTAGE IS NO JOKE
Helium — a nonrenewable resource produced by the radioactive decay of thorium and uranium — has a wide variety of purposes. It's used in MRI scanners, rockets, welding, lasers, televisions and in a host of scientific experiments.
So for scientists and lawmakers, the shortage is no joke.
Last month, the U.S. Senate held a hearing on the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012, a bill aimed at preserving the Federal Helium Reserve, a natural geologic gas storage formation about 15 miles north of Amarillo, Texas. The field supplies 42 percent of the nation's and 35 percent of the world's helium, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
In recent weeks, many have blamed the shortage on the 1996 Helium Privatization Act. The law was passed in part because the government's helium business was operating more than $1 billion in debt. The law mandated the government sell off most of its helium reserve by 2015. The result was below-market prices.
But Samuel Burton, an assistant field manager for helium operations at the Bureau of Land Management, said that explanation doesn't make sense.
Burton attributed the helium shortage to a worldwide surplus of natural gas. The most economical way to capture helium is to separate it from natural gas. And producing less natural gas also means less helium.
Burton added that maintenance issues at aging helium facilities around the world have contributed to the problem.
"We are not able to keep up with the demand, especially when other suppliers are not able to provide their helium," Burton said.
Karen Buster, the human resources office administrator for Airship Ventures, which flies a helium-filled zeppelin in the San Francisco Bay area, said suppliers have told her the shortage is due to shutdowns at helium plants.
Buster said Airship used to pay $22 for 100 cubic feet of helium. Now that price is as much as $50.
The zeppelin, which visited St. Louis last year, charges passengers $375 for 45-minute rides.
The Federal Helium Reserve provides 6 million cubic feet of helium a day and has been operating at full capacity for a year, Burton said.
At that rate, the reserve would run out of helium by 2018. But under the proposed Stewardship Act, Burton said the reserve would continue to produce helium until 2029.
Another helium supply exists at the Riley Ridge field in Wyoming.
"You hear a lot of dire predictions in the media," Burton said. "But there is a substantial amount of reserves left in the United States."
For the moment though, consumers can expect to pay more for balloons.
The shortage hit at the worst possible time for florists and party shops: Mother's Day and graduation season.
Tony Corso, a designer at Alex Waldbart Florist in Richmond Heights, said Waldbart's helium suppliers ran out of the gas. He ended up having to drive to Belleville to pick some up. To compensate for the inflated cost of helium, the independent florist has increased the price of its mylar balloons to $7 from $6.
"I'm sure if we did the math, we would have to charge even more," Corso said.
At Party City in Olivette, manager Todd Rogers said the store is still able to obtain enough helium to fill more than 2,000 balloons for customers each week. But it has experienced delays in helium shipments and stopped renting out tanks about a month ago.
Other retailers haven't been so lucky.
Jack Mertens, area branch manger for Helget Gas Products, based in Omaha, Neb., said his company doesn't have enough balloon-grade helium.
"We have had to walk away from business," he said. "You can't sell something you don't have."