HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) – The health care industry is taking a hit as a result of the nationwide helium shortage.
The element is used in several industries because it’s non-flammable, non-toxic, non-reactive and has the lowest boiling point.
Nearly 75% of the world's helium supply is produced in the U.S. but reserves have been depleted.
John Goodwin, a chemistry professor at Coastal Carolina University, says helium can't be manufactured, and the global supply is only found deep underground. He added another reason that could be behind the shortage is helium is a non-renewable source.
“It's not something we can recycle because as we use it and it goes in the atmosphere. Since it's so light in mass, it can escape from the atmosphere and just go out into space very easily, so all of our limited supply of helium is slowly being used and released to space,” Goodwin said.
One of the most common uses of helium in hospitals is in MRI machines, which can detect anything from a torn ligament to a brain tumor.
The shortage is driving costs up and could potentially increase the cost of care.
Dr. Jim Tompkins, the director of Imaging Services at Conway Medical Center, says the hospital is at the forefront working with manufacturers trying to find solutions in response to the helium shortage. For now, he says patients who depend on MRI’s shouldn't worry.
“We're fortunate in a way that it uses very little. The initial fill is quite a bit - it's measured in pounds. I don't know exactly, but probably about maybe 30 pounds or so. But it keeps tabs on it and we look at a refill maybe every six months to a year, so you can kind of equate it to maybe coolant in your radiator,” Tompkins said.
Tompkins added the medical field is fortunate, as the machines are getting more efficient as times goes on.
While experts don’t know exactly when the helium supply will run out, they say there needs to be more research done to find some type of replacement or alternative methods.