Every child who visited Elizabeth House Flowers on South Boulevard in Charlotte, N.C., used to walk out toting a free balloon.
But a long-running global helium shortage means the company -- along with other small businesses in Charlotte and around the country -- must conserve resources and even turn away customers. At Elizabeth House, free balloons are now out of the question.
Helium, a natural resource, is usually harvested from natural gas reserves. The shortage, which has dragged on for a year and won't end for months, is a simple case of demand outweighing supply, said Joe Peterson, assistant field manager of helium resources at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
In Europe, a sluggish economy is producing less natural gas, he said, and that means helium production is also down.
"There have been and there will be a lot of party balloon-type stores that will be impacted by the current shortage," Peterson said.
At Todd's Flowers on Central Avenue, for instance, the florist's helium tanks haven't been filled since November. Without helium, the florist had to turn down about 25 balloon bouquet orders for Valentine's Day, account manager Lindsey Ward said.
Helium, a finite resource, does a lot more than inflate balloons. It's also used in MRI procedures, fiber-optic cables, welding procedures and lab research, and it often has no substitute.
Pennsylvania-based Airgas, which controls 22 percent of the U.S. market of helium and supplies many Charlotte companies, has had to prioritize its customers, spokesman Doug Sherman said.
Airgas cut off customers without contracts, and even those with contracts aren't guaranteed their full supply, he said.
"Believe me, our business is moving gases," he said. "We'd be selling it if we had it."
Carolinas HealthCare System hospitals haven't had any supply problems, spokesman Kevin McCarthy said.
"There are a couple of grades of helium, and the grade we get is a medical grade," he said. "Our supplier has been able to meet all our medical-grade helium needs."
Likewise, Harris Teeter grocery stores have been unaffected. The chain continues to give free balloons to children who visit the store, said Catherine Reuhl, communication manager.
And Balloon and Party Service in uptown Charlotte survives thanks to its helium provider, Charlotte-based Little Balloon Co. "If it wasn't for him, we'd probably be out of business," General Manager Carolyn Mason said.
Mason said helium prices have jumped more than 25 percent since 2012 began, from $90 to $115 a tank.
The shortage, she said, has necessitated price increases.
"We tried not to go up that much," she said. "But yes, we have to charge more."
Though helium is a nonrenewable resource, Peterson said it won't run out soon. "For more than 50, 75, 100 years, there will be helium available," he said.
A Wyoming-based plant slated to open in December is expected to ease the current shortage, he said. In the meantime, conservation is key.
"Now is the perfect time to begin conservation measures such as recovering helium from MRI machines," he said. "In applications where the helium is used as a gas and it goes to the atmosphere, there has been some talk of being able to capture that gas and recycle it."
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