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Helium prices are blowing up. Here's what is causing the increase

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You've heard a lot about inflation, but brace yourself because we're going to talk about inflation inflation.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

What Ari means is the cost of blowing up has blown up.

SHAPIRO: OK. No more puns. What we're saying is there is a helium shortage.

PFEIFFER: Which you may have noticed if you've thrown a party recently, like Mark Sussman in Washington, D.C., whose daughter just turned 2.

MARK SUSSMAN: My wife had bought some Mylar balloons, like Sesame Street themed.

PFEIFFER: Then she went to their local hardware store to fill them up.

SUSSMAN: She was going and expecting it to cost maybe like $5. It ended up costing about 20. And they told her it was, like, pretty much the end of their supply.

SHAPIRO: He gets around by bike mostly, so he says this is the first time he's really been hit by the rising gas prices. Yeah, I lied when I said no more puns.

PFEIFFER: Oh, puns are so painful. Anyway, that sticker shock squares with what Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting, is seeing in the markets. He says 4 of the 5 major helium suppliers have implemented, quote, "formal allocations." Translation - they're basically triaging existing customers.

PHIL KORNBLUTH: A company that is buying helium is getting somewhere between 45% and 65% of its historical volume depending on who their supplier is.

SHAPIRO: It's hard to get exact numbers on how much of that cost is finding its way to consumers, but party supply stores and balloon decor specialists from Chicago to Tucson say they've been forced to raise prices or even ration balloons.

PFEIFFER: Nebraska football fans are feeling the shortage, too. Their longstanding home game tradition of releasing red balloons after the Huskers' first score? Well...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TREV ALBERTS: We are, this year, not going to be providing the red balloons for the first time at Memorial Stadium.

PFEIFFER: That's athletic director Trev Alberts on the Husker Radio Network.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALBERTS: The helium that we are getting as a university we need to use for medical purposes at UNMC in Omaha.

PFEIFFER: Yes, filling party balloons is helium's least important job. It's also used to cool the magnets in MRI machines and in manufacturing semiconductor chips.

SHAPIRO: Aerospace, fiber optics, welding - all those industries use it, too. That means shortages like this one are a real problem.

PFEIFFER: But they're not unusual. Kornbluth calls this helium shortage 4.0.

KORNBLUTH: The helium business has been swimming against the current for quite a while now.

PFEIFFER: And lately, it's been one supply disruption after another, from fires to maintenance shutdowns to indirect side effects of the war in Ukraine.

KORNBLUTH: Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in the first half of the year.

PFEIFFER: Kornbluth does say some of the production snags may be unwinding soon, and he expects the second half of this year to look a lot better than the first.

SHAPIRO: In the meantime, a tip we found on Twitter - use static. Rub those balloons filled with air on the carpet and stick them to the ceiling. After all, a helium shortage is no reason to feel deflated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "TWILIGHT")

SHAPIRO: All right. Here's your pledge dollars at work.

(SOUNDBITE OF INHALING HELIUM)

SHAPIRO: (In squeaky voice) You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.