Beaufort County businesses are feeling the effects of a global helium shortage that's squeezing supply lines dry. Balloon shops, florists and others are experiencing financial pressure.
The long-running shortage means businesses around the country must conserve the helium they have, and in some cases, turn customers away.
Those hoping for a "Get Well" or "Birthday" balloon to go with their flower bouquet from Flowers by Sue on Hilton Head Island are out of luck because the shop is out of the gas.
Manager Ed Moody said the business's supplier, Airgas National Welders in Bluffton, could no longer provide the one tank of helium that would last several months. The only other supplier in the area, Praxair in Savannah, requires businesses to buy a certain number of tanks and helium a year.
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As a result, Moody is forced to refer customers to grocery or party supply stores, which are also being pinched.
Party supply stores are surviving, but helium costs have jumped more than 25 percent since January, requiring price increases and some ingenuity to stretch what is available.
Sheryl Inglefield, owner of Celebration Supplies in Fresh Market Shoppes on Hilton Head, found herself without a supplier weeks before the Super Bowl. Like Moody, she relied on Airgas for helium. But unlike Flowers by Sue, a large portion of Inglefield's business comes from balloon sales.
To stay afloat, she signed a contract with Praxair requiring her to purchase nearly twice as much helium.
"The tanks are 50 percent bigger, and I now have four instead of three," Inglefield said.
She said she's had to increase prices. An 11-inch latex balloon is now $1.40, compared to $1.25 in December. A 50-inch mylar balloon is now $19, up from $17.
And Inglefield has been told to expect another 30 to 35 percent increase in helium costs soon.
"I feel bad for the customers that have to make choices on a limited budget. Their money doesn't go as far," Inglefield said.
To help, she has come up with balloon creations that don't require helium. She fills them with air and ties them to sticks, arranging them as a bouquet, or hangs them from a ceiling.
"So far, it hasn't caused a big problem. If prices keep going up, it will come to a point where helium usage for parties will not be practical, but I don't see that today," Inglefield said.
The lighter-than-air, nonrenewable gas does a lot more than inflate balloons. It's also used in MRI procedures, fiber-optic cables, welding procedures and lab research.
Area hospitals and medical-imaging centers, however, say they do not face shortages.
"Moderns MRI scanners use very little liquid helium to cool their magnets, and there's very little need to replace it," said Dr. A. Joseph Borelli Jr., medical director of MRI at Belfair in Bluffton.
HOW IT BEGAN
The Associated Press reports that the shortage stems from the Helium Privatization Act that Congress passed in 1996. It calls on the government to sell off helium reserves stored underground in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas by 2015. The intent was to cut costs, but the price of helium was set so low that it discouraged new production efforts.
The Federal Helium Program was created in 1925. Its original purpose was to ensure supplies for defense, research and medical purposes.
Overseas production also fell.
Several natural gas fields across the globe where helium is harvested shut down during the last 12 to 18 months for maintenance, repairs and upgrades, Airgas spokesman Doug Sherman said. Some have been off-line longer than anticipated, creating a backlog. Meanwhile, global demand has increased, he said.
The Pennsylvania-based company supplies about 22 percent of the U.S. helium market and has had to prioritize its customers, he said.
Airgas cut off customers without contracts, and even those with contracts aren't guaranteed their full supply, Sherman said.
"We would sell them helium if we had it," he said.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead