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Helium and Health Care: The Pressure Is Rising | Commentary

When scientists, Congress, the health care industry and high-tech manufacturers all agree on the urgency of an issue, you know it is more than hot air. A large portion of the U.S. supply of available helium is set to become unavailable on Oct. 7 because of a legislative deadline set in law by the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. Congress has the opportunity to immediately address this challenge while also supporting manufacturing, innovation and economic strength across the nation.

Perhaps best known for inflating party balloons and enabling cartoon-like high-pitched voices, helium is also critical in several industrial and scientific processes. From high-tech microchip manufacturing and space exploration to MRI medical technology, helium plays an often unseen yet vital role in many everyday things. It’s for more than just balloons!

One-third of the world’s helium supply is now found at the federal reserve in Texas, which has been supplying the private sector with helium ever since the enactment of the Helium Privatization Act in 1996. This act is set to expire with vast amounts of crude helium left in the government reserve, and, as of Oct. 7, the reserve will be closed to companies and scientists that depend on it. This represents the “helium cliff” we now face.

Fortunately, there is a congressional effort under way to avoid the helium cliff. This spring, the House of Representatives passed the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (HR 527), and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the Helium Stewardship Act (S 783) with strong bipartisan support. GE Healthcare testified last year before both the House and Senate on the importance of securing a stable supply of helium for research and medical innovation.

The need is urgent. Helium is vital to the medical imaging manufacturing industry and the health care economy, but most of all to the patients who need access to MRI to diagnose stroke, tumors and other diseases.

MRI technology is only 30 years old, and it offers real-time internal patient imaging with optimal contrast resolution between areas of anatomy. MRI is especially effective for imaging soft tissues such as the brain, spine, liver, kidneys, as well as, increasingly, breast tissue and joints. Every hour, physicians around the globe scan more than 8,000 patients using MRI. A grandfather could have his stroke diagnosed; a multiple sclerosis patient could learn if the disease is advancing; or a college athlete could get a second opinion on a torn ACL.

Helium is absolutely essential to MRI, as it is currently the only element on earth that can effectively keep an MRI magnet at a necessary, and extremely cold, operating temperature — more than 440 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. An MRI system, depending on its age, may need up to several thousand liters of helium stored in a sealed vacuum system surrounding the magnet.

As a company, we use 5.5 million liters of helium a year at our South Carolina production facility and dedicate another 6 million liters per year servicing MRI systems at hospitals across the U.S. We are investing more than $18 million this year alone in a new helium recycling facility and other efficiency measures — including proprietary conservation technologies and helium reuse methods. And our researchers at GE’s Global Research Centers are exploring new magnet designs and innovative cooling techniques, all in preparation for a near future where helium demand outpaces supply.

The costs of inaction or delay by Congress would be damaging to our nation’s manufacturing and high-tech economy. Yet with prompt action on this key legislation, we can avert the helium cliff, empower physicians to best diagnose and treat patients using MRI and help keep the U.S. economy strong.

Richard Hausmann, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Magnetic Resonance for GE Healthcare.