Local News

Rise in helium costs could deflate your wallet

Posted September 23, 2013 7:59 p.m. EDT

— Helium party balloons won't be the only thing affected if there's a worldwide helium shortage.

Your health care costs could also rise.

That's because the gas, when used in a liquid form, is an inexpensive way to help keep cool powerful magnets used in medical equipment such as MRI machines and medical lasers.

It's also an essential resource for the aerospace industry and in the production of computer chips and optical fiber.

The Federal Helium Program, which provides about 42 percent of the nation's helium from a storage site near Amarillo, Texas, is set to shut down Oct. 7 unless lawmakers intervene.

The shutdown is a result of a 1996 law requiring the reserve to pay off a $1.3 billion debt by selling its helium.

The debt is paid, but billions of cubic feet of helium remain, and if helium sales halt, the costs could soar.

And that would also mean, the White House says, harming many U.S. industries and disrupting national security programs.

Alex Smirnov, a chemist at North Carolina State University, says it is already difficult for some industries to get it.

"Small hospitals that do not recover and reuse this gas will have no choice but to shut down the operation," he said.

Smirnov says the helium is out there but that it could take years for private industry to get at it.

U.S. lawmakers are hoping to avoid a shutdown of the helium reserve.

Last week, the Senate voted 97-2 to continue the helium program.

The bill, however, differs slightly from a bill approved in the House in April.

President Barack Obama favors the Senate version.