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Scientific Experiments and Medical Exams Are in Jeopardy Because of Your Kid's Birthday Balloons

helium balloons, earth's helium supply, kids birthday parties

A birthday balloon now may mean no MRI later.

What would you say is more important: being able to get an MRI or making sure your kid has a metallic Disney Princess or Cars balloon at her or his birthday party? I’m guessing most people are going to go with the former. (Though I do love a nice party balloon!) And that’s the problem: the helium being used – or in the minds of scientists, wasted – on party balloons is actually putting scientific research and medical procedures in jeopardy. Why?

The world’s supply of helium is “now becoming worryingly scarce,” according to this report from The Guardian. The article quotes scientists who are upset that “we are frittering away the world’s limited supplies of helium on party balloons.” Researchers like Professor Jim Wild of Sheffield University note that, “Helium is particularly important for running super-conducting magnets …. These magnets are now widespread and found in machines that range from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to MRI scanners in hospitals. Without helium, none of these machines would work.”

If you’re like me, and the only thing you really know about helium is that it will make you talk like a munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz” if you inhale small doses of it (a thing you probably shouldn’t do, for the record), here’s some history:

Earth only has a limited supply of helium, which is released as a by-product of the petrochemical industry. Essentially, pockets of the gas are disturbed during gas and oil drilling and rise to the surface. In the 1920s the US …. created a vast stockpile of billions of litres of helium … and kept it until the late 1990s, when it decided to sell it off.

According to Robert Richardson of Cornell University, “a helium party balloon should cost £75,” to “reflect the true value” of the gas inside it. (That would certainly make you think twice about buying a huge balloon like the one pictured, above left, which I bought for my daughter’s 5th birthday.)

The most fascinating thing I learned reading the Guardian piece is that though helium is scarce on Earth, it’s the second most abundant element in the universe. Dr. Ian Crawford of Birkbeck College, University of London, notes, “There are about 22 grams of helium in every cubic metre of lunar soil …. so you could envisage the day when it becomes economic to build mines on the moon to supply us with helium.” Hello?! Are you listening Newt Gingrich?! Why don’t you take one of those private trips to the moon for your birthday and bring back some helium for us? When you get back you can have an MRI and a balloon.

So! Does this knowledge make you less likely to buy helium balloons for your kids? I almost bought one just for fun the other night, and now I feel kind of guilty. I only buy them once a year for my daughter’s birthday, and unless legislation is put in place against it or prices go way up, I’ll probably keep doing so. Is that wrong? I mean, I’m a good recycler and I spend extra money on organic products. Leave me a yearly balloon, right?

Hat tip Susie Felber for the Guardian link!

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