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We got a call a couple of weeks ago from a local who's getting married this weekend. She wanted balloons. But when she tried to purchase a helium tank, she says a local party supply company told her that supplies are drying up and that balloons are "going to be a thing of the past."

A thing of the past? Does this mean that American children are destined to grow up in a world without helium balloons? That would make for sad birthday parties. What about the clowns? Will they be hurting, too? Will that squeaky Mickey Mouse voice you get when inhaling helium also become a thing of the past?

Alarmed, we did some sleuthing. Our first stop was Eastgate Rental & Party Center. As soon as the word "helium" came out of our mouth, Eastgate co-owner Katie Clegg slowly shook her head. Clegg admitted she's got a helium stash set aside for for pre-orders, but that's it. No new orders are being filled, at least for now.

Eastgate buys helium from Norco Medical, in Missoula. Steve Klein at Norco was apologetic but firm. "You can't sell what you don't have," he said.

Though helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, there is indeed a shortage. Helium exists in the atmosphere, but it's easier to get from underground storage reservoirs during natural gas production.

Because helium is essential to scientific and medical endeavors, the United States Government created the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve in 1925. That Texas reserve is the largest in the world and it's slated to be tapped by 2020.

Turns out the shortage stems in large part from the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, which called to sell off the United State's helium stockpile by 2015.

The problem is private helium producers haven't come online fast enough to fill the void. As a result, helium is largely being sold to hospitals and researchers, leaving only small amounts for entertainment. Sometimes, privatization is no fun.

The shortage is probably not a forever thing. In the meantime, helium remains available locally in "balloon kits." Each kit comes with enough helium to fill about 27 balloons.

We're so relieved.

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