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National helium shortage could affect local businesses

A nationwide shortage on a certain type of gas that is often overlooked, is causing some concern.

Helium is typically associated with parties, balloons and high-pitched voices but local businesses say the shortage isn’t something to laugh at.

The 1996 Helium Privatization Act mandates that the government sell most of its helium reserves by 2015. Over the years, the government has been doing just that, leaving the nation’s supply limited.

It’s a colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-toxic gas. For businesses that focus on party planning, a helium shortage could be devastating.

“If you look at my aisle, I have a lot of empty spots so the balloons do go pretty fast,” said Kristi Trent, store manager at Zurchers.

On a good day, the average party supply store will fill up to 500 balloons with helium.

But this gas doesn’t just keep our balloons afloat. It is also used for a variety of medical procedures ranging from laser eye surgery to MRI’s. Medical personnel at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center say helium is used very sparingly at the hospital.

“We’re not going to see a huge impact here at the hospital,” said Greg Trosper, Intensive Care Unit Director at EIRMC. “We’re going to be able to continue with all therapies and procedures as normal and provide safe and effective care for the community.”

Doctors say the medical procedures that use helium can also use interchangeable gases, if there is a need to shy away from helium.

“We can mix and combine (gases) them together if there is a mass shortage of helium,” said Trosper.

As for balloons, one tall tank of helium costs around $100 and can usually fill about 400 11-inch balloons. The local Zurchers store will go through about two or three of these tanks a week.

“Last month, which was graduation month, our store in Boise was one of the only ones that had helium in town,” said Trent. “We’re finding that that’s the case here in Idaho Falls too. It’s mostly a helium quality that they’re needing and we just happen to have that in stock.”

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