Helium, that colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas that makes balloons float and voices sound funny, is in short supply.
Supplies have been tight since January, said Jonathan Pinczewski, owner of the Lexington-based balloon and inflatables company Lighter than Air. He's tried to keep his regular, contracted customers — places like stores, car dealerships and apartment complexes that use balloons to add a festive touch — going with the helium he has on hand. But, he said, "I get more people calling every day. I have had to start turning people away."
If you have been in the market for, say, a nice birthday balloon, you've probably found a "sorry, no helium" sign at your local Kroger.
Tim McGurk, Kroger spokesman, said the chain expects helium supplies to be half of what they normally receive for at least three months.
"We certainly apologize for any inconvenience," he said, adding that floral and air-filled balloon offerings probably will fill the void.
Deflated celebrations might not be the only result of the shortage. Helium is used for a variety of industrial purposes, including cooling the powerful magnets used to make MRI machines function. Locally, neither Central Baptist nor University of Kentucky hospitals have to cut back on scheduled procedures because of the shortage.
Debbie Norsworthy, owner of Lexington's Balloons2Sassy, is working around the shortage by creating more festive balloon sculptures with fixed structures. Also, she has a new machine that can inflate balloons with a mixture of helium and air, she said.
She's not optimistic about the future supply: "I expect it to get worse."
She might be right. The shortage, which has dragged on for a year and won't end for months, is a simple case of demand outweighing supply, Joe Peterson, assistant field manager of helium resources at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said in The Charlotte Observer.
Behind hydrogen, helium is the most abundant element in the universe. Helium used for industrial purposes is a byproduct of natural gas production, and the Texas Panhandle is the U.S.'s helium capital. In the natural gas fields near Amarillo, the U.S. government maintains the country's largest helium storehouse.
The bureau operates Cliffside Gas Field, 15 miles northwest of Amarillo. The field and bureau-operated helium enrichment plant supply crude helium used in about 40 percent of U.S. helium production and almost 35 percent of the world's helium production.
Pinczewski, who has been in the balloon business for 30 years, said he's not too worried. "It seems like every election year some shortage comes around," he said.