Since my kids were babies, we’ve filled our house with helium balloons for their birthdays. It’s family tradition that my husband wakes up early on their special day, goes to the party store, and packs the car with a ridiculous amount of multi-colored balloons.
This year, however, he came home empty-handed. Why? There’s a shortage of helium in America these days. If you too have tried to buy helium balloons recently, you’ve probably noticed they’re next to impossible to acquire.
This isn’t the first time there’s been a helium shortage in America, according to The New York Times. In fact, as Phil Kornbluth—a consultant who’s been working in the helium field for 36 years—told The Times, this is the third helium shortage in the past 14 years.
“We started referring to this as helium shortage 3.0,” said Kornbluth.
So why exactly is helium so often in such short supply, and what are the consequences of this shortage besides the fact that it’s virtually impossible to get balloons for our kiddos?
Well, the reason for the shortage is two-fold, according to NPR. The first problem is that helium is not a renewable resource. Basically, it is formed deep inside the earth through the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium, and then extracted for usage.
“It takes many, many millennia to make the helium that’s here on the Earth,” Sophia Hayes, a chemist from Washington University, explained to NPR.
The other reason is that helium is not the kind of element that can be easily and economically stored. Once formed, it can easily escape from the earth’s surface. “It’s the one element out of the entire periodic table that escapes the Earth and goes out into outer space,” as Hayes describes it.
But here’s the thing: it’s not really a balloon shortage that we need to be concerned about. Sure, it’s a sad day when you can’t have a Mickey Mouse balloon at your kids’ party or when the Thanksgiving Day Parade has a shortage of inflatables (that actually happened in 1958, according to The Times, during another shortage), but the real problem is that helium has many important uses that go beyond party balloons. And we should all be concerned about what a shortage might mean for these industries and for our lives.
For example, as NBC News explains, helium is used to as a coolant in many manufacturing processes. A third of all the helium use in America is used in cryogenics, the scientific study of low temperatures. It’s also used to the cool the equipment in particle accelerators. And get this: your home’s fiber optic cables (used to power your TV and internet) are made using helium.
Space shuttles and military equipment use it too. And lest we forget: helium is used in the manufacturing process of the chips found in our cell phones, tables, and computers. (How on earth could we survive without our phones?!)
But the most consequential use for helium is in the medical world. It happens to be a prime component of MRI machines: important and life-saving medical devices used to detect cancers, tumors, and diagnose diseases.
And there is another, lesser known, but vital use too: nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR). As writer Bruce Y. Lee explains in article for Forbes, NMR, which uses the “super-cooling properties” of helium “can help researchers study the structure of proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and other molecules to better understand and address how the human body and potential medical treatments may work.”
So helium can help identify, prevent, and study innovations in medicine? Mind. Blown. The more you know, right?
Okay, so considering how sacred a resource helium is, should we all stop buying helium balloons for our kiddos when they’re available?
According to scientists, helium usage in balloons is pretty small compared to usage elsewhere, so cutting back on helium balloons isn’t likely to make a huge difference in the helium shortage. Still, it can’t hurt.
“I suspect the amount that is used in party balloons is quite small compared to the other main uses of it,” Dr. Peter Wothers, a chemist from Cambridge University, tells The BBC. “But it’s just a rather trivial use of something we should be valuing a little bit more.”
However, balloons themselves are a known environmental hazard, threatening wildlife and ecosystems, especially when you release them into the environment, as often happens with helium balloons.
So yeah, as much as it might break our (and our kids’) balloon-loving hearts, it’s probably best that we ditch helium balloons for good. And honestly, investing in a resource-rich world — and a clean and livable earth — is just about the best birthday gift we can give to our children.
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