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KAI RYSSDAL: Here’s another economic indicator found in out of the way places, the price of helium. Next time you rent a tank of it to fill up balloons for a party, get ready to pay double what you would have five years ago. Helium’s the second-most abundant element in the universe. But here on Planet Earth the gas is getting harder to come by. Marketplace’s Amy Scott has more.
AMY SCOTT: At Balloon Bouquets on Manhattan’s west side, John Kakalecik inflates a latex balloon with an increasingly precious gas. Helium supplies are so tight he’s stopped renting tanks to his customers for parties. He’s raised his balloon prices almost 20 percent.
JOHN KAKALECIK: Helium prices went up five times this summer. Twice actually in one week.
The shortage began about this time last year, as global supplies failed to keep up with demand. Despite what your child might think, helium is good for more than making your voice sound like this. It cools the magnets used in MRIs. It’s used to make computer chips and flat-screen TVs. Hans Stuart is a spokesman with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He says more than a third of the world’s supply comes from a single U.S. government stockpile near Amarillo, Texas.
HANS STUART: At most, this reserve at current rates of withdrawal, is about 10 and a half or 11 years left of helium.
New sources in Qatar and Algeria have been slow to get off the ground. Helium broker Andrea Pichardo says high prices have driven some of her customers out of the balloon business altogether.
ANDREA PICHARDO: We are on the edge of our seats waiting, because it gets to the point where, how much would somebody purchase a balloon for?
But the balloon business has sailed through tough times before. During a helium shortage in the 1950s, Macy’s filled its famous Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons with air and lifted them by crane.
In New York, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.
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