Balloon on Ocracoke beach. Photo: P. Vankevich

This is the first of a series of stories regarding the ecological and economic harm of marine debris.

By Peter Vankevich and Caroline Branan

The magnitude of plastics and other marine debris in the world’s oceans is a code-5 alarm. The statistics paint a bleak picture of the already disastrous impact this pollution is causing.

At least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. It will only worsen if hard action is not taken soon.  

The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, made up of “marine debris,” is estimated to be four times the size of France.

For beach walkers, it is never pleasant to see plastics, especially deflated balloons.

On the Outer Banks, many are aware of the dangers they pose to wildlife, but someone celebrating a birthday and releasing balloons thousands of miles away doesn’t realize those balloons may endanger wildlife and — end up on beaches.

“Balloons are specifically concerning as they persist in the environment for a long time, can travel long distances to pollute the most pristine places and they can appear to wildlife like a food item when floating in bodies of water,” said Michelle Tongue, deputy chief of resource management and science for the National Park Service’s Outer Banks Group. 

NPS employees remove balloons when found on the beach.

“In one year on Ocracoke alone, Seashore staff collected 551 balloons,” Tongue said.

Not only are deflated balloons found on the beach but are present out to sea.

Brian Patteson has run year-round offshore pelagic sea birding trips out of Hatteras to the Gulf Stream since since 1986. “I see them just about every trip,” he said. “Sometimes we see several if the water is calm enough to see them far away.”

Balloons have been around since 1824 when famed British physicist and chemist Michael Farraday invented them using rubber to contain gases such as helium, hydrogen, nitrous oxide, oxygen and air.  

In the 20th century, balloons became a staple for festive gatherings. Throughout the world, millions of air-filled balloons — these days made of latex or Mylar— are purchased yearly. Most stay out of the environment and end up in landfills. 

Released balloon stuck in a tree on remote Portsmouth Island, NC , photographed June 26, 2022 by Peter Vankevich

But when balloons are filled with helium and released into the sky for special events, in small or massive numbers, they become detrimental.

Since helium is lighter than air, the balloons, often with strings attached, rise only to eventually find their way back down. They often become entangled in trees and can be eyesores for years.

Utility companies complain that balloons made of mylar are responsible for many utility power outages when they connect with power lines. Their silvery coating serves as a conductor for electricity and can short transformers just by coming near high-voltage lines. 

Many will argue that their greatest harm is to wildlife.

For marine denizens, deflated balloons resemble jelly fish or squid, common prey for sea turtles, whales and dolphins. Once ingested, balloons can block the gastrointestinal tract, causing infections and other complications leading to death.

Animals also can become entangled in attached balloon strings and ribbons, which can lead to their death. 

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify how many sea turtles die from ingesting plastics,” said Mary Vosburgh, co-founder of Balloonsblow.org. “But there are studies that show a great deal of sea turtles and seabirds are full of plastic. The amount of plastic we find that is bit up and partially eaten by sea turtles, birds, and fish is alarming.”

The balloon industry argues that latex, which is made of natural rubber, is biodegradable. But the time it takes for latex to decompose is long and before that, does not prevent marine animals from consuming them.

Sable Island, Nova Scotia

Latex and Mylar balloons are found on beaches throughout the world. 

To illustrate how far and quickly released balloons can travel, it is worth looking at Sable Island, a crescent-shaped island, roughly 25 miles in length located 100 miles off Nova Scotia and the exclusive nesting grounds of the Ipswich Sparrow.

Washed up balloon on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. Photo by Zoe Lucas

“All kinds of garbage wash up on the beach on Sable,” says Zoe Lucas, who has worked on the island since the early 1970s and has extensively documented flora and fauna of the island. “Everything that you could possibly imagine floating around in the ocean you find on the island, including medical supplies.

“Plastics increasingly dominate the synthetic debris that comes ashore. When I first started looking at debris, there was a lot of glass and fishing gear, and now there are more household and industrial products, but most is plastic of some kind, and the plastic breaks up into smaller, smaller pieces.”

Lucas has long paid attention to balloons noting that many have identification on them as they are used for advertising or events.

“The interesting thing is that about 85% of the balloons that were turning up on Sable Island had come from the continental U.S,” she said.

Some years ago, Lucas found one deflated balloon marked with a school name from Ohio and the date March 31, and it appeared on the island three days later. “It was likely a release with a large number of balloons—one turned up on Sable; the rest of them probably ended up in the ocean,” she said.

In another part of the world, a study by the University of Tasmania, noted that balloons are the No. 1 marine debris risk of mortality for seabirds. 

Balloons found offshore of the Outer Banks. Photo by Jeff Lewis

Ban the Balloon?

Environmental organizations have long called for an outright ban of balloon releases and advocate for alternatives to celebrate festive occasions other than balloons. Bubble makers, colorful buntings and non-helium balloons firmly attached to poles are just a few.

Many communities have prohibited balloon releases, but only a handful of states have some form of legislation regulating the release of balloons, though there is proposed legislation in several others, according to Clean Virginia Waterways, a nonprofit organization located at Longwood University.

None of them has a total ban.

Virginia’s law, for example, makes it unlawful for any person to release into the atmosphere within a one-hour period 50 or more balloons. 

Florida limits releases within a 24-hour period of 10 or more balloons.

California has a total ban but only for Mylar balloons, or those constructed of electrically conductive material that cause power outages.

Some argue that education is more effective than laws and regulations.

Critical helium shortages

The slow political decision-making process to eliminate released balloons may be overtaken by production problems of their gas of choice, world events and rising costs.

Helium is the second most-abundant element in the known universe, but relatively scarce on Earth, and it is a nonrenewable resource. Whereas released balloons and their attached strings and ribbons make their way back to Earth, the gas continues to rise and then disappears forever into space.  

Currently, there is a world-wide helium gas shortage which has been cyclical over the years. 

Helium is a byproduct of underground radioactive decay and is extracted during natural gas production. Only a few countries are responsible for production, the major ones being United States, Qatar, Algeria and Russia. All are currently having maintenance and production problems.

In addition, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent trade sanctions have restricted that country’s exports, impacting the supply chain.

Helium is unique among all elements in that it can reach ultra-cold temperatures, approaching absolute zero, before changing to liquid, making it vital for critical industrial applications and research. The shortages and inflated costs are adversely affecting research and production of essential products.

One of the most important medical-related uses for helium is for magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs. This equipment takes detailed pictures of the insides of a patient’s body to help diagnose medical conditions. MRI equipment is fitted with superconductive magnetic coils that require liquid helium to keep them cold without disruption. 

For many industrial applications, there is no ready substitute for helium. It is used extensively in the production of semiconductor chips, cell phones, televisions and computers. It is vital in aerospace and defense technologies, high-tech manufacturing, and the production of fiber optic cable.

Unlike the loss of helium in balloons, according to a recent article in “Physics Today,” there are central helium recovery and liquefaction systems that can recover about 70% of the helium used by universities and others.

Another gas that could be used for balloon releases is hydrogen since it is lighter than air. But hydrogen is highly volatile and subject to fiery explosions, posing a danger to human beings and therefore definitely not suitable for recreational balloon releases.

If there is a priority order for the uses of helium, recreational released balloons must be towards the bottom. 

Released balloons have strings attached. Photographed on Ocracoke Island by Earle Irwin

2 COMMENTS

  1. A good article, but if you wish to talk about the dangers of plastics and debris polluting the oceans and hurting wildlife, this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the wildlife killed by discarded commercial fishing nets. You should look into the facts for the damages and deaths caused by this, and also write and article on that as well, Id love to read it. Have a great summer

    • This is the first of a series of stories regarding the ecological and economic harm of marine debris. There is much more to cover. This focused on released balloons only.

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