Because you had party balloons at your 7-year-old’s birthday party, you many not be able to get a MRI scan by the time your 70. At least that is the conclusion of some scientists who say the world supply of helium, which is essential in research and medicine, is being squandered because we are using the gas for party balloons:
“It costs £30,000 ($47,568) a day to operate our neutron beams, but for three days we had no helium to run our experiments on those beams,” said [Oleg Kirichek, the leader of a research team at the Isis neutron beam facility at the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory]. “In other words we wasted £90,000 ($142,704) because we couldn’t get any helium. Yet we put the stuff into party balloons and let them float off into the upper atmosphere, or we use it to make our voices go squeaky for a laugh. It is very, very stupid. It makes me really angry.”
But don’t blame the kids—blame the U.S. Government for distorting the market for helium.
The US created a vast stockpile of billions of litres of helium in the 1920s and kept it until the late 1990s, when it decided to sell it off,” said Jonathan Flint, the CEO of Oxford Instruments, whose scanners and other devices use helium for cooling.
For the past decade that vast stockpile has been sold off, causing prices to plummet. “Helium was cheap and we learned to be wasteful with it,” said Kirichek. “Now the stockpile is used up, prices are rising and we are realising how stupid we have been.”
As the Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert Richardson explains, a helium party balloon should cost $119 to reflect the true value of the gas used. Yet as The Observer notes, you can buy enough helium to float 200 balloons for that price. “We are squandering an irreplaceable resource,” says Richardson.
Who would have thought that making helium cheap enough that it could be used for party balloons would have such a negative impact? Certainly not the government, which is why the State should be limited in the way in can distort prices. Prices are the best signal we have for distributing scarce resources and when the government distorts price signals—whether by subsidies or stockpile sell-offs—the unintended consequences inevitably harms us all.