Helium Shortage Harms MRI Patients

By Winni Jeong

Yes, gas is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. Yes, the U.S. alone produces 75% of the world’s helium. And yes, this same helium supply is running out… fast.

The shortage of helium doesn’t just mean party store owners have to pay more for helium tanks for ballooning. It could also restrict the ability of patients to obtain an MRI scan.

Helium is crucial to MRI production. In an MRI system, the main component is a large magnet with superconducting wire cooled to 4.2 Kelvin or minus 452 F. Currently, Helium is the only element on Earth that effectively maintains this cold temperature. Thus, with little helium to be found, these scanners become extremely difficult to maintain.

With no helium to properly service an MRI, the magnet could sustain permanent damage. Then, hospitals or centers need to replace the machine, which is an expensive and time-consuming process. As a result, gradually, this could harm patient care as the amount of available and functioning MRI machines decrease.

As a solution, the U.S. Senate is considering the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012. This would extend the 2015 deadline for the sell-off of the Federal Helium Program. Consequently, it will allow the federal government to continue supplying world markets with helium, selling it at market prices. However, despite introducing this possible solution in April, Congress has still not taken any action on the bill. In the meantime, the fate of patients requiring MRI scans hangs in the balance.

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