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Owner Lori Barrett blows up balloons at Secret Garden in Decatur. Like other party supply stores and florists, Barrett has experienced a steep increase in helium prices in recent years. 

DECATUR — There may be something to get deflated about this graduation season for Central Illinois party suppliers, and that's not just hot air. A global shortage of helium — the second most common element in the universe — is driving costs up and up and up. 

"We know one day there may not be helium for us," said Camice Barker, who runs Barker's Balloonery and Bridal, a Shelbyville business that makes balloon bouquets, balloon arches and other balloon displays for parties, events and weddings.

Because helium also is used in airbags, fiber optics, rocket fuel and a variety of medical uses, Barker said she's come to terms with the changing economics. It's been a steady increase. 

"Since I started in 1995, my price on helium has gone up about 313%," she said.  

The retailer Party City announced May 9 it will close 45 of its 870 stores nationwide throughout the year. The lack of access to the gas has negatively affected latex and metallic balloon categories, the company said in a statement.

Most helium in the U.S. is a byproduct of drilling for natural gas. Prices for the inert gas for the last year have been "volatile" for the past decade because of intermittent shortages, said Phil Kornbluth, a Bridgewater, New Jersey, consultant to the helium industry. Some suppliers have doubled the price in the past year, he said.

Kornbluth expects the scarcity to get much worse.

"The shortage will last all of this year and get really bad in the summer because the world's largest plant in Wyoming is scheduled to take a five-week shut down for maintenance," Kornbluth said. "That will take 23% of the world supply off the market. "

Lori Barrett, owner of The Secret Garden, a florist on West Eldorado Street in Decatur, said prices have jumped 125% in nine years.

If helium prices rise, they might have to take a more serious step.

"We may have to change (prices) within the next couple years or not offer balloons at all," Barrett said. "And that's scary."

Barker has added a $1 surcharge per $5 bouquet of balloons, but has always had access to helium when she has needed it.

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Owner Lori Barrett blows up balloons at Secret Garden in Decatur. "We may have to change (prices) within the next couple years or not offer balloons at all," she said. "And that's scary."

The conditions are being closely watched by hospitals. Helium, for example, is an important component in MRI production, as it cools down superconductive magnet coils in the scanners.

Tim Block, director of radiology at HSHS St. Mary's Hospital, said they have not been hit by the shortage.

"In the event of a critical need for helium, we have a service contract in place that would fulfill that need," he said.

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Decatur Memorial Hospital spokeswoman Anne Davis said the hospital also has not experienced any impact either. But Patty Peterson, spokeswoman for Sarah Bush Lincoln Hospital in Mattoon, said the hospital is paying $90 more for helium now compared to four years ago.

"If it became more scarce, it would be reserved for medical equipment as opposed to party balloons," she said.

Shelli Dankoff, spokeswoman for OSF St. Joseph Medical Center, said the helium shortage has been known for some time within the health care community, and they feel like they are covered.

Sophia Hayes, a chemistry professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said, "Those that are struggling — from what I am hearing, given that I'm from an academic world — are largely chemistry, physical sciences and other departments that possess NMR (Nuclear magnetic resonance) instruments."

Hayes said many scientific researchers are experience conditions where they are allocated only 80% of an order. 

That hasn't been a problem for faculty at Decatur higher learning institutions. Andrew Hynds and Christopher Merli, two assistant math and science professors at Richland Community College, said the college does not purchase helium for any science sources. And Kyle Knust, an assistant professor of chemistry at Millikin, said his department also does not typically purchase helium.

"For example, gas chromatography separations are routinely run with helium, but can also be completed with nitrogen," he said, "which is a cheaper alternative and suitable for teaching."

For those using the gas to fill balloons, adaptation is crucial. 

Barker said some will put 60 percent helium and 40 percent air into balloons so they still float. Some balloons are being made with a seam in the middle inside, so the top part is filled with helium and the bottom part has air, she said.

"Air-filled lasts a lot longer, and there's a lot you can do with non-helium," Barker said.

Party Warehouse owner Diane Little said she is very fortunate to work with a great helium supplier.

The prices are going up, she acknowledged, but the supplier has allowed her pay in two steps rather than one large payment.

Little said she has raised the price to fill mylar balloons once, but has yet to increase the fill price of latex balloons. The current price to fill a latex balloon is $1.50, but if helium prices continue to ascend, she said Party Warehouse may up the price to $2.

Creek's Florist in Mount Zion experienced a toll from the high helium prices, so owner Eloise Ruch stopped selling helium-filled balloons over a year ago.

The last few times she tried to order helium, she said, it took a long time to be delivered. So she decided, "I'm not going to fight this."

Tribune News Service contributed to this story. 

Contact Kennedy Nolen at (217) 421-6985. Follow her on Twitter: @KNolenWrites

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