Hillsborough, N.C. — A nationwide shortage of helium means that balloons expressing messages of love will be in short supply on Valentine's Day.
Helium is often extracted from natural gas wells, but it's a pricey process and many companies have scaled back their collection, said Gary Pielak, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"It's bleak," Pielak said, noting his chemistry lab is having a hard time finding helium for experiments. "The companies that sell natural gas have to decide whether they also want to recover the helium from the natural gas."
Helium is also used at hospitals for MRIs and other procedures, so hospitals have priority in purchasing the limited supply of helium.
Bennie Sparrow, owner of Balloons Above Orange in Hillsborough, said she has only one tank of helium to fill balloons for Valentine's Day next Tuesday. The tank can fill about 600 balloons, and she said she can get orders for up to 1,000 balloons for the holiday.
"There's just no way we can run a balloon business without helium," Sparrow said.
Very few of the display balloons in her store are filled with helium so she can conserve her limited supply for customer orders. She's also increased her prices in recent months to pass along the higher cost of helium.
If the helium supply situation doesn't improve, Sparrow said, it could put her and other small balloon stores out of business.
"That's going to be something that's going to be a major issue in us small business people being able to stay here," she said.