Angela Salema gives out six balloons every time she delivers a singing telegram. Sometimes, a seventh is included in case one pops.
Business has been sluggish in recent years for the Toledo entertainer and owner of Angela's Dancer & Singergram — she breaks even some months and takes a loss in others.
Now, Ms. Salema is feeling added financial pressure from the ballooning price of helium, a concern that never crossed her mind when she began the service 26 years ago.
"Since I don't have too much business, it has hurt me now," she said. "The cost keeps going up."
Ms. Salema's problem is echoed by other helium-dependent industries such as florists, party-supply stores, and medical facilities — it is used in MRI scanners — throughout the United States.
Spring is normally a peak season for the helium-balloon business, with proms, graduations, end-of-school parties, and weddings.
Several factors contribute to the increasing helium prices. Chief among them is a move by the U.S. government to put control of the industry in the private sector. As part of that decision, the government is authorized to release only 2.1 billion cubic feet of the gas a year, said Samuel Burton, assistant field manager for helium operations at the Bureau of Land Management.
Lower supply means higher prices — and some merchants have said they haven't been able to get new supplies of helium at all.
The government is selling its helium reserves because of the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, which calls for the gradual transfer of the helium industry to the private sector. It no longer sells refined helium and only distributes a crude form of the gas to companies that turn it into a finished product.
The price of helium should stabilize as more producers of the gas enter the market, Mr. Burton said. Until then, Congress is working to make sure the industry doesn't face a price boost in 2015, when the Helium Privatization Act expires. The Helium Stewardship Act in the U.S. Senate would allow the government to continue selling crude helium.
The government originally took an interest in helium for defense purposes in the 1920s, Mr. Burton said. Over time and with the development of better technology, the gas became commonplace in America and across the world.
Still, store owners such as Heather Stubbs of Myrtle Flowers & Gifts in Toledo have begun price increases to offset the cost of helium. Balloons at the store have been increased by about 50 cents each, Ms. Stubbs said. If helium becomes too expensive, people might stop ordering balloons, she said.
"We don't sell a lot of balloons, but that's what we get our helium for, so we've had to increase the price of our balloons," Ms. Stubbs said.
Contact Kris Turner at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6103.