is helium bad for the environment

Is Helium Bad for the Environment?

Last Updated on August 18, 2023 by Annie Baldwin

Helium is a noble gas used in party balloons that seems harmless.

But is helium bad for the environment?

This article examines the environmental impact of helium.

Is Helium Bad for The Environment?

Is Helium Bad for the Environment?

Yes, helium is bad for the environment because it is a non-renewable resource that we are depleting too quickly.

Helium forms extremely slowly on Earth yet we are using up available supplies far faster than they can be replenished.

Once helium reserves run out, they cannot be readily replaced.

Wasteful helium uses as party balloons contributes to this resource scarcity.

Going forward, we must reduce helium waste and find ways to recycle it wherever possible.

Key Points

  • Helium is a finite, non-renewable resource that forms very slowly on Earth.
  • Global helium supplies are declining as demand has outpaced production for over 50 years.
  • The biggest environmental impact of helium is depleting limited reserves too quickly through wasteful uses like party balloons.
  • Rising helium prices discourage waste but hurt critical research that relies on affordable helium.
  • Recycling programs could cut helium waste from party balloons which account for over 5% of usage.

What Is Helium?

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen.

On Earth, most helium forms from the slow radioactive decay of rocks.

Small amounts also come from natural gas deposits.

Helium has many uses, from cooling superconducting magnets in MRI machines to providing lift for weather balloons.

But its most well-known use is filling party balloons and blimps.

Helium’s unique properties, including being lighter than air and non-flammable, make it ideal for inflating balloons.

The gas gives balloons and blimps their buoyancy.

Is Helium a Renewable Resource?

No, helium is a finite, nonrenewable resource.

Once helium reserves are depleted, more cannot be made within a timescale meaningful to humans.

Helium forms so slowly that Earth’s reserves are not replenished quickly.

As we use helium faster than it can form, supplies are dwindling.

In the United States, helium production peaked in the 1960s and has declined since.

The US Bureau of Land Management reported that the Federal Helium Reserve is now over $1 billion in debt after selling off its supplies.

Experts warn we could run out of affordable helium in just 25 to 30 years.

New helium sources have been found, but they are small and challenging to access.

Does Helium Harm Animals or the Environment?

Helium gas itself is chemically inert and does not directly damage the environment.

But helium use does have some environmental impacts.

Helium balloons can be mistaken as food and ingested by animals.

Birds, turtles, and marine mammals have been reported with balloon fragments in their stomachs.

While a balloon itself may pass through harmlessly, attached ribbons can tangle up inside animals with fatal results.

When a helium balloon pops, the helium atoms rise and eventually escape Earth’s atmosphere.

The rubber, ribbons, and attachments fall back down as litter.

These can choke, suffocate or entangle wildlife if not disposed of properly.

Overall though, the biggest issue with helium is that we are using up finite reserves of a nonrenewable resource.

The more pressing environmental concern is running out of helium.

Why Is Helium Nonrenewable?

Helium forms by the slow radioactive decay of heavy elements like uranium and thorium over billions of years.

These elements are found in Earth’s crust, so small amounts of new helium are constantly being added to the atmosphere from underground.

However, the helium forms far too slowly to keep pace with current usage.

Earth also loses helium because the gas’s low molecular weight allows it to escape gravity and leak into space.

Very little helium re-enters Earth’s atmosphere once lost because there is negligible helium in space to recapture.

Essentially, once we use the helium reserves that we have on Earth, they are gone for good.

How Is Helium Extracted?

Most helium comes from natural gas deposits found in underground rock formations.

Helium makes up a tiny fraction – as little as 0.2% – of extracted natural gas.

The gas deposits are pressurized under impermeable rock, trapping the gases.

Drilling releases the natural gas mixture to the surface, where it is refined to separate the helium.

The United States possesses the largest helium reserve in the world near Amarillo, Texas.

The Federal Helium Reserve provides over 40% of the global supply.

However, US helium production has fallen nearly 75% since its peak in the 1960s as the reserve runs down.

How Is Helium Used?

While helium has many niche industrial and scientific uses, its main use is in helium-filled balloons.

Party balloons account for about 5-10% of all helium used today.

Helium’s unique properties also make it useful for pressurizing rocket fuel tanks, as an inert shielding gas for arc welding, and for cooling the superconducting magnets inside MRI scanners.

As helium reserves shrink, priority will likely shift away from recreational uses like party balloons to critical medical and research applications.

However, if we keep using helium wastefully, global supplies could run out.

What Are Alternatives to Helium Balloons?

There are a few good alternatives to helium for filling balloons and blimps.

Hydrogen is flammable and dangerous, while hot air balloons cannot be easily controlled.

However, we could reduce helium balloon usage through recycling programs and the promotion of more sustainable alternatives like air-filled latex or foil balloons.

Using air-filled balloons more could drastically cut the 5-10% of helium wasted on party balloons annually.

Discouraging the careless release of helium balloons into the atmosphere may also reduce helium waste.

Does Recycling Helium Reduce the Environmental Impact?

Is Helium Bad for the Environment?

Recycling helium from industries that use it in closed systems can drastically reduce helium waste.

However, recycling helium used in party balloons is more challenging.

The US company Balloons Blow is pioneering balloon gas recycling systems.

Their machines can recapture helium or hydrogen gas for reuse when balloons deflate after parties.

Widespread adoption of this technology could reduce the environmental impact of balloons.

However, recycling helium from industries is still easier and accounts for most helium recycling today.

Overall, any recycling reduces the amount of new helium needed and helps conserve limited supplies.

Is the Rising Helium Price an Environmental Concern?

As helium reserves shrink, the price of helium has risen more than 500% over the past 15 years.

While more costly helium may deter wasteful uses like party balloons, it also hurts critical research.

If rising costs curb helium applications in medicine and science, it would harm technological progress.

The overall environmental impact is unclear, but higher helium prices do discourage wasteful uses.

Despite this, recreational uses still account for over 5% of helium consumption.

More recycling infrastructure and publicity over helium depletion could better spread awareness of the shortage.

Does Helium Have Any Positive Environmental Impacts?

Helium itself does not have direct environmental benefits like reducing pollution or combating climate change.

However, technologies enabled by helium’s unique properties do benefit the environment and scientific research.

For example, MRI scanners equipped with helium-cooled superconducting magnets revolutionized medical imaging and diagnosis while avoiding radiation from X-rays.

Helium’s role was vital in developing this important medical technology.

While helium does enable technologies that benefit people, its only real positive environmental impact is displacing more damaging greenhouse gases when substituted for fuels.

Overall, helium forms too slowly in nature to be considered ecologically sustainable.

How does helium get into the atmosphere?

Helium forms naturally in Earth’s crust through the slow radioactive decay of heavy elements like uranium and thorium.

Tiny amounts of helium are constantly generated underground and seep up into the atmosphere through rocks.

Helium also enters the atmosphere when released from natural gas deposits during extraction.

However, the amount of helium entering the atmosphere this way is negligible compared to current usage.

Earth loses more helium to space than is replenished underground.

Once helium escapes gravity and rises into the outer atmosphere, it leaks away into space rapidly.

Very little extraterrestrial helium flows back into Earth’s atmosphere.

So, while minute quantities of helium do reach the air naturally, this process is far too slow to counterbalance human usage.

Is helium safe for humans?

Helium is chemically inert and non-toxic at normal atmospheric concentrations.

However, inhaling pure helium or helium-rich gas mixtures can be extremely dangerous.

Helium inhalation displaces oxygen in the air, leading to asphyxiation and even death from oxygen deprivation.

The safest use of helium involves mixing it with air rather than inhaling pure helium gas.

Children should not be allowed to suck in helium from party balloons due to suffocation risk.

Adults can inhale small breaths of helium to temporarily change their voice pitch for amusement, but even short-term inhalation can cause lightheadedness and dizziness.

Overall, helium is safe in balloon mixtures but hazardous when inhaled in pure gas form.

Why should we conserve helium?

Helium should be conserved because it is a non-renewable resource that is running out.

Helium reserves took billions of years to form underground and cannot be readily replaced.

As supplies shrink, helium prices rise, which restricts usage for critical technology and research.

While conserving helium will not stop it from eventually running out, it can significantly extend available supplies.

This gives us more time to find new helium sources and develop recycling infrastructure.

Conserving helium now protects its availability for medical imaging, rocketry, welding, and other important applications in the future.

What are the environmental effects of helium?

Helium itself does not cause pollution or climate change since it is inert and non-toxic.

However, extracting helium from natural gas does contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, helium balloons and their attachments, if not disposed of properly, can litter the environment and hurt wildlife through ingestion or entanglement.

While helium balloons have a small ecological impact, the main environmental concern is overusing limited helium reserves too quickly through wasteful applications.

But with proper conservation efforts and recycling, helium usage can become more sustainable in the future.

In Summary

Helium is a nonrenewable resource that is slowly being depleted on Earth.

While helium itself does not harm the environment, its use in helium party balloons raises some ecological concerns and contributes to resource scarcity.

However, recycling programs could reduce helium waste from balloons and conserve limited supplies for critical medical and research purposes.

Going forward, raising awareness around helium depletion and discouraging wasteful uses are important for ensuring sufficient global helium reserves in the future.


Why is helium nonrenewable?

Helium is nonrenewable because it forms extremely slowly from radioactive decay and Earth loses helium to outer space. Once helium escapes into space, it cannot be economically recovered.

Does helium have any environmental benefits?

Helium has no direct ecological benefits. However, it does enable advanced technologies like MRI scanners that benefit medical research and humanity. Substituting helium for greenhouse gases also avoids some emissions.

How long will Earth’s helium reserves last?

Experts estimate Earth only has another 25 to 30 years left of affordable helium if current usage rates continue. However, cutting waste and new sources could extend supplies somewhat longer.

Can we make helium artificially?

Making new helium requires nuclear fusion, which has not yet been achieved sustainably. Helium can be formed as a byproduct of nuclear decay, but not in commercially viable quantities. Recycling is currently the only way to “create” usable helium supplies.

At GreenChiCafe, we are passionate about our natural world and environment. Please check out our website for more great content on important sustainability topics. Together we can work to address climate change and other pressing ecological issues facing our planet.

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