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FAQs balloon releases

Balloon releases (or races) have always been popular with schools, but sadly they can have a catastrophic impact on the environment.

If you have your heart set on a balloon release, and have the authority to proceed, what can you do to reduce the risks? We put this and other frequently-asked questions to the team at NABAS, the National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers...

Do we need a licence for a balloon release?

No, but you must contact your local authority within 28 days prior to the release, as many have banned balloon releases on council-owned land. Releases exceeding 5,000 balloons should not take place unless they have been cleared in advance with all relevant air traffic and local authorities.

What material should our balloons be made from?

You should always use latex, since it is a natural substance (made from tree sap), is fully biodegradable and decomposes at about the same rate as an oak leaf under the same conditions. Latex balloons begin to break down approximately one hour after inflation.

Foil balloons and bubble balloons should NOT be released. Foil is an artificial substance made from metal-coated plastic, and bubble balloons are formed from a stretchy plastic. Neither of these materials are biodegradable. Bubble balloons also reach much higher altitudes and could become a hazard to aircraft.

Can we tie our balloons together with string or ribbons and release them in clusters?

No - you should never tie balloons together in bunches. Always disperse balloons singly. No ribbons or strings must be attached to the balloons, as they take much longer to decompose. There is also a risk that animals may become entangled and suffer internal problems should they try to eat the ribbon or string.

We are concerned that animals will be harmed if they ingest deflated balloons. What precautions can we take?

Animals have been known to ingest deflated balloons, but providing the balloons are made from latex, there should be no harm done. Latex is non-toxic and the dyes used in colouring the balloons are non-toxic, so all components re-enter the food chain safely. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that a latex balloon has ever caused the death of an animal.

Helium is a natural gas used in medicine and surgical operations, but supplies are depleting. Is it ethical to use it for a balloon release?

It is important to distinguish the difference between helium used for balloons and other lifting, and helium used for medical and cryogenic applications. Both originate from the same source, but balloon-gas is unrefined and contains about 2% of other gases. It also helps with the balloon's decomposition. Both are non-flammable and non-toxic, but balloon-gas is definitely unsuitable for scientific or medical applications.

What other precautions should we take?

  • Balloons must be hand-tied and plastic valves should not be used.
  • Balloons that contain any metallic pigment, such as silver or gold, should not be used.
  • Any attached labels (NO strings or ribbons) must be made of paper, preferably recycled.
  • Balloons larger than 12 inches cannot be released.
  • All balloons sold near balloon releases must be weighted to prevent them from escaping.
  • Balloons will float up to a height of approximately five miles, where they become brittle and shatter into miniscule pieces. Problems can arise when a balloon is not inflated properly and therefore doesn't reach the height at which shattering occurs. Make sure all balloons are properly inflated.
  • Consider using a NABAS member. Find details of members on the NABAS directory.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Always investigate all the repercussions thoroughly when deciding on this type of event. Consider alternative ideas, including a virtual release offered by a supplier such as Rent A Balloon Race.

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