Helium shortage threatens access to MRI services

A shortage of helium that has been plaguing businesses that sell lighter-than-air balloons is also affecting the operation of MRI scanners.

A variety of conditions let to the shortages--from wildfires in Wyoming to a processing plant shut down in Algeria to lower natural gas consumption for home heating from this year's warm winter.

The U.S. Helium Reserve may be a key contributor, according to the National Journal. The Journal reported the Bureau of Land Management facility near Amarillo, Texas, holds 13 billion cubic feet of helium in storage. Critics say the bureau has held the price for helium artificially low to discourage private competition that could have prevented the shortage. 

A report in AuntMinnie.com found the shortage is affecting helium supplies available for MRI. The gas is used to cool scanner's giant superconducting magnets.

Siemens Healthcare has rationed consignments of helium to its MRI customers for several months, though it has received reports from its suppliers that stocks could improve in the near future, said Ellen Joyner, Siemens MRI service product manager, according to the article. The company hopes to get back to normal allocations soon.

GE Healthcare, another leading MRI vendor, reported no helium shortages for its customers in recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Tom Rauch, global sourcing manager for servicing and aftermarket solutions, told the committee the firm is filling MRI scanners under maintenance contract with smaller amounts of helium per service visit to address the shortage, AuntMinnie.com reports.

Beyond its impact on medical imaging, the shortage is sucking the air out of toy balloons everywhere.

Thomas Welton, PhD, a professor of sustainable chemistry at Imperial College in London, expressed frustration with the use of helium for toy balloons and inflatable souvenirs during the recent Olympic Games, The Telegraph reports. He stressed the need to conserve it for MRI and other critical applications. The wholesale price of compressed helium in the United Kingdom has jumped 20 percent.

In a bipartisan move to stabilize supplies, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) have introduced the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 (S. 2374). The legislation would instructthe Bureau of Land Management to continue to sell crude helium from its reserve beyond the current Jan. 1, 2015 deadline and to adopt market-based prices to encourage natural gas exploration and helium production.

To learn more:
- read the AuntMinnie.com article
- read the National Journal article
- read the Telegraph article


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