Helium shortage could leave parties, medical tests up in the air

Helium shortage could leave parties, medical tests up in the air »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Before you even set foot in Party City on Stockdale Highway, a sign has a warning: "No more balloon walk-ins due to helium shortage 6/9/12 til ???"

The party supply store is one of many around town turning customers away because of a helium shortage.

"We ran out Saturday evening, and then Sunday we weren't able to take walk-ins," said Party City assistant manager Heather Hughes. "We saved one helium tank for pre-orders."

The only other helium option the retailer can now offer is a small nonrefillable helium tank that fills 30-50 balloons. The tanks will run customers about $30 to $40.

Party City's supplier, Melo's Gas & Gear, hasn't had a delivery in more than two weeks. According to plant owner David Melo, the problem can be traced back to Kansas, where a few supply plants are down for maintenance. Demand is growing, Melo said.

"Helium in the earth is depleting, not as much as there use to be, demand has gone up somewhat, and it's a worldwide product now," Melo said.

But, Tuesday afternoon, a bit of relief arrived at Melo's Gas & Gear. A helium delivery tank arrived.

"We've just received a load of helium, high-pressure helium, about 250,000 cubic feet," he said.

According to Melo, the helium would be tested for purity and then sent out to research labs, medical clients and retailers.

At Party City, Hughes let out a sigh of relief when Eyewitness News told her about the delivery at Melo's. She quickly turned to fellow co-workers to share. News of the helium delivery in town, however, is good for more than just the balloon shops.

"You won't see helium when you get an MRI, but, by golly, you have to have it in order to have an MRI," Melo said.

An MRI - magnetic resonance image - provides doctors very detailed images of the body, internally. The magnets in the machine rely on helium to stay cool.

"There's no replacement. You're out of helium, you're out of the MRI business," said Quest Imaging outpatient supervisor Chris Granillo.

Quest Imaging said it has all the helium it needs for patients to get the MRIs they may need. He said newer imaging companies or those without the latest technology may need more helium to meet patient demands.