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Helium Shortage Looms for United States

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Helium Shortage Looms for United States

U.S.

Helium Shortage Looms for United States

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

You may not be aware of this but this country is suffering from a helium shortage.

Ms. LESLIE TYCE(ph) (Bureau of Land Management): The problem is there's a lot more demand than there is supply and this has been going on for about three months now.

BLOCK: I reached Leslie Tyce in the helium capital of the world, Amarillo, Texas. She's with the Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of the federal helium program. Turns out helium is in short supply because several overseas plants aren't up and running, and things will get worse this week.

Ms. TYCE: We are going to be shutting our plant down starting Wednesday the 8th, and we're scheduled to be down from 10 to 14 days.

BLOCK: As they do annual maintenance, that'll cut helium delivery by about a third.

Ms. TYCE: From what we can tell, most of the large critical users are getting the helium they need. For example, like NASA. Every time they launch a space shuttle, they need at least one train car load of helium, which is a lot of helium.

BLOCK: As for the rest, big industry is okay. About 20 percent of the global market for helium is used to super cool the magnets in MRI machines. Seventeen percent is used for laser welding. As for balloons, well, they suck up 8 percent of the helium stock.

Ms. TYCE: Unfortunately, those folks are probably not as high on the food chain. And it appears some of the poor folks in the balloon industry are the ones that are bearing the brunt of this, from what we can tell.

BLOCK: What are they telling you?

Ms. TYCE: We're hearing that they're not able to get the supply they need for their party balloons and other things. And being helium folks, we hate to see anybody not get what they need.

BLOCK: Well, if we're watching on Thanksgiving Day the Macy's Parade, should we be looking for a little limpness in some of those Snoopy and Spongebob balloons?

Ms. TYCE: I sure hope not. Don't let it disappoint the kids.

BLOCK: That's up to private industry, she says, not the government.

NORRIS: So please conserve our nation's precious helium supply and don't try this at home.

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