By Surili Sutaria, Senior Specialist, Environmental Health, APHL
Recently you may have heard that your local party store cannot inflate your balloons due to a helium shortage. Well, the lack of helium doesn’t just affect our ability to decorate kids’ birthday parties. Did you know it also limits our public health laboratory system from performing tests to protect the communities in which we live, play and work?
Public health laboratories conduct ongoing tests for harmful agents not only in people but also in water, soil and foods. These laboratories also test for chemical threats such as nerve, blood, blister, choking and metal agents like sarin, cyanide, mustard gas and mercury. All of these applications help protect our communities and families, and many of these tests require the use of helium. According to an article in the National Post, in 2011 alone 32% of helium used in the US was for medical and scientific usage, including MRIs, fundamental science and industrial cryogenic processing.
The Helium Shortage
Helium is a natural resource that is made either by the nuclear fusion process of the sun or by radioactive decay of terrestrial rock. Helium, unlike glass or plastic, is not recyclable and is a rare and finite resource. There are currently only 10 helium source sites around the world. The world’s largest and only underground, natural reservoir is the Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, which supplies about half of all helium used in the US each year and currently plays a critical role in fulfilling helium demands of the world.
In the 1960s the US government began stockpiling helium as a strategic resource. In order to pay off debt after the Cold War, the US government decided to privatize the helium reserve by selling pieces of it at a nominal cost by 2015. This was known as the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. Consequently there has been a rapid depletion of the helium reserve.
In response to the recent helium shortage, a Senate bill has been introduced called The Helium Stewardship Act (S. 2374). This bipartisan bill aims to reauthorize the Federal Helium Reserve to continue selling helium at market price beyond January 1, 2015. The authors of the Act also predict that the debt, if this legislation is adopted, will be settled as early as mid-2013.
Helium and Public Health Labs
In the meantime, the cost of helium is on the rise. Some public health laboratories have been forewarned that their carrier will no longer be supplying helium. Henry Leibovitz, chief of Environmental Sciences at the Rhode Island State Health Laboratories, is concerned with what will happen as the costs of helium continue to rise. “The competing interests of those who wish to continue using a limited resource and those who are tasked with controlling the budget are on a collision course,” he explained.
The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water’s Technical Support Center at the US Environmental Protection Agency has recognized the immediacy of the shortage and has issued a memorandum indicating that hydrogen is an acceptable carrier for gas chromatography and may be used in place of helium in drinking water compliance methods. Several laboratories are working to validate methods to substitute hydrogen for helium. Stephen Treimer, a chemist for Emergency Response at Iowa’s State Hygienic Laboratory , thinks part of the issue is reluctance to change. “I can speculate that people fear change and that unless backed into a corner [they] do not want to move from what they are comfortable with.”