Reba Bettwy's been in the party supply business since 2008, supplying helium-filled balloons for her customers.
She's afraid that may come to an end.
"I've had sales representatives tell me there is a possibility we may not have any helium balloons in my lifetime," said Bettwy, 53, store manager at Everyday's A Party, 415 Orchard Ave.
The reason: A worldwide shortage of helium, the lighter-than-air inert gas used to fill the balloons.
Most of the country's helium comes from the Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas. In 1996, the federal government decided to get out of the helium business, said Rob Newkirk, store manager at GTS-Welco Inc., Altoona, a gas distributor.
"There was an explosion of demand with the plants going offline; the demand has exploded over the last four to five years," Newkirk said.
"Helium is used for balloons, cooling MRI machines and for welding and manufacturing microchips. With technology, the need for helium has increased phenomenally. That has put the U.S. behind the 8-ball."
Newkirk said he is still able to get helium but it can take three weeks longer to get a shipment.
"It has got to a point where I have to allocate all of my helium to cover my customers; I can't take on new clients. We are barely serving the customers we have," Newkirk said. "We get at least three calls a week from people looking for helium. We are getting flooded with calls."
Bettwy said she has had to increase her prices as a result of the shortage.
"Since I first started in this business in 2008, the price of a tank of helium has increased three times," Bettwy said. "We have had to pass on the price increase to our customers. When I started, a single balloon would cost 89 cents; it now ranges from 99 cents to $1.29. Before you could get a dozen for $7.99, now it is about $12.99."
Crystal McGonigal, branch manager of Best Event Rental, 311 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd., said she is concerned she may not be able to continue getting helium.
"Come October, I may not be able to get it," McGonigal said. "I got helium last week. You can only get what you got in previous months. You can't increase your order."
So far, the shortage has not hurt her business.
"The majority of our business is not based on balloons, it is more geared to plastics and rentals," McGonigal said. "The number of helium balloons we sell is hit or miss. We had one order in July for 400 balloons."
Helium is also used at medical facilities for vartious reasons.
The primary uses at Altoona Regional Health System are for the linear accelerator for radiation oncology treatments and for cooling MRI machines, said Gary Zuckerman, vice president of supply chain.
"We haven't really been impacted yet but our suppliers have had difficulty meeting our needs. We are the first priority; the balloon and flower people are the ones with the bigger problems," Zuckerman said. "The price has gone up and will continue to go up. I think we may see shortages for the next couple of years."
611 MRI-CT, 2950 Fairway Drive, hasn't had any problems yet in getting helium.
"It is not having any impact on us. We don't wait until the last minute to order our helium. When we notice it is getting low, we order well in advance," said Krista Mackovyak, MRI technician. "We monitor it daily. If you run out today, you will not get it tomorrow."
Newkirk said there is hope on the horizon as the supply is expected to increase by the end of the year with new plants coming on line in Wyoming, Russia and Qatar.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.