The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador drafted guidelines for helium balloon releases in 2002. These guidelines state:
“The impressive visual impact of thousands of balloons being released into the sky may last a few minutes, but the impact on wildlife and the marine environment may last many months with potentially harmful consequences. Once balloons are released, they can become a serious form of land and water pollution.”
In ocean settings, marine creatures including dolphins, whales, turtle, fish and seabirds have been recovered with balloons in their stomachs. Balloons pose similar risks to freshwater fish, turtles and birds that mistake the buoyant plastics and latex for their natural prey and forage.
Biodegradability of Balloons
The latex balloon industry reports that a balloon made of natural latex will biodegrade about as quickly as an oak leaf. Of course, this is dependent on many factors, including temperature, humidity, and sun exposure. An oak leaf in cold water can take more than six months to break down.
Provided balloons are fully inflated and made of natural latex, if they reach their maximum expected altitude of 7.5 km, they will burst into small fragments due to the extreme temperatures and pressures at that height. If this happens, the fragments fall to the ground, and should biodegrade fairly rapidly. It is estimated that about 5-10% of balloons do not reach such heights, though, and end up floating at low altitudes until they descend, intact, into the environment where they can persist for much longer than as fragments.
Helium: A precious and dwindling resource
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, but on Earth, it is relatively rare. It is one of the only elements that easily escapes Earth’s gravity and once exposed to the air, it will escape into space readily.
Terrestrial helium is a rare and finite resource, formed from the radioactive decay of ancient rocks. It is mined through natural gas exploration, and is stored as a byproduct of this industry. The United States has been the world’s largest supplier and storehouse of helium since the 1920s, when federal storage facilities were established for inflating airships. More recently, the U.S. has started selling off its helium reserves, though, and analysts recognize that the world is facing a potential irreversible global helium shortage.
Helium has many critical uses in industrial and medical applications, including in the manufacturing of semiconductors and MRI scanners. Due to its practical importance and the dwindling global supply, many jurisdictions are looking to ban the recreational use of helium for balloon releases.
Some “Best Practices” Guidelines for Helium Balloon Releases
People should be encouraged to consider other, less destructive ways of paying tribute or marking significant occasions than the use of helium balloons. Some alternative options, found at http://balloonsblow.org/environmentally-friendly-alternatives/, include the use of flags, banners, streamers, or dancing inflatables; planting memorial trees or plants; using kites and garden spinners; hanging bunting banners (strings of cotton flags, similar to Tibetan prayer flags); using tissue paper pompoms; drumming; floating flowers; or spreading wildflower seed bombs.
If you must release helium balloons, the following guidelines should be observed:
- Use only natural latex balloons. While most balloons used for helium balloon releases are made of biodegradable latex, some are made of mylar which persists much longer in the environment. Mylar balloons should be discouraged from use for helium balloon releases.
- Balloons should be released with no strings or ribbons attached. Strings and ribbons that may be tied to balloons persist far longer than the balloons themselves. Keep balloons in a mesh bag until the time of release.
- Release only small quantities of balloons at any given time. The City of Toronto has a bylaw that prohibits the release of any more than 10 helium-filled balloons per 24- hour period.
Release balloons away from lakes and other waterways, away from power lines or overhead trees, and make sure conditions are not too windy so that balloons rise quickly without blowing sideways.