Island Science

Balloons Away

• by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay – Director, University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station

On April 22nd we will celebrate the 45th Earth Day. It is hard to believe that 45 years have passed since the first Earth Day. As citizens of the planet, we have come a long way in our efforts to protect wildlife and clean up our air and water, but there is still much to do and in many arenas progress is being lost. To commemorate this year I thought I would write about a momentous vote held at our 2015 annual Town Meeting when Nantucketers voted to ban “lighter than air” balloons from the island.

Our annual town meeting is an interesting democratic tradition which I never miss unless I have to travel for work. This year 1040 people turned out on the first night in support of articles to fund new elementary, middle school and fire station infrastructure. The second night, there were 636 voters in attendance, most of whom were there to discuss various zoning articles designed to alter zoning in neighborhoods around the island to allow for more mid-priced homes to be built. One article discussed that night was Article 80, a citizen article brought forward by island resident Scott Leonard with support from many other island organizations (listed below) to ban helium balloons. After some spirited debate led by island resident’s Brian Glowacki calling of the article, the vote was held and the amended town bylaw (Article 80) passed by a count of 314-103. Here is the exact wording of the Article: To see if the town will amend Chapter 125-2: Solid Waste Disposal of the town code to include the following wording under section B as a subset of the regulations:

  1. A ban on the sale and/or use of any type of balloon (including, and not limited to, plastic, latex or Mylar balloons) to be inflated with any type of lighter than air gas (including, and not limited to, helium gas). People importing such novelties from off-island, but disposing of them on-island in any manner other than being contained in a plastic trash bag and transported to the Landfill, shall be fined pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 1, Article II by Noncriminal Disposition at $50 per offense.”

This means people will no longer be able to sell or use any type of balloon that can be inflated with “lighter-than-air gas,” such as helium. The measure covers plastic, latex, and Mylar balloons. If visitors import balloons to Nantucket, they will have to toss them in a plastic trash bag and bring them to the town landfill. Regular balloons filled with air from your lungs, tied into shapes, used as a water balloon, attached to a stick or used as decorations are okay. Currently the town is working on materials to inform the public and vacationers about the rules. The ban needs to be approved by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Attorney General’s office before it goes into effect and some changes in wording may be proposed at that time, but there is a good chance that the ban will hold, especially as other municipalities such as Provincetown have also banned helium balloons. Provincetown’s law went into effect several years ago and states: “Prohibition of helium-filled balloons. The sale, use, and distribution of helium filled balloons, both for public and private use, is prohibited.”

I got involved in this process when my friend, Scott Leonard, who is the Director of the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program came to me a year or two ago seeking support for a letter directed to the Board of Selectman asking the Town of Nantucket to consider banning lighter than air helium balloons and educating the public about the adverse impacts of lighter than air balloons. As the co-Captain of the Nantucket Clean Team, an ocean oceanographer, and a supporting members of the Nantucket Marine Mammal Stranding team, this was one of those instances in life in which a question is truly a “no brainer”. Marine debris, especially plastic bags, balloons and their omnipresent string, fishing line and nets all contribute to countless and senseless sea turtle, bird, and marine mammal deaths. Several years ago, we found a weakened, starving, almost dead osprey in the Field Station osprey nest, completely hogtied by balloon string preferentially brought to the nest by the adults.

Scott Leonard also brought up two other facts in his letter to the Board of Selectman: helium is a precious medical and industrial gas that is being depleted and balloons not only endanger wildlife but they also are a major part of litter on our beaches and island. In fact we end up collecting many balloons from all of the country as they float in the wind from west to east. Mass releases have been banned by numerous entities, including the states of Florida, New York, and Texas; the National Park Service; the White House; and even Walt Disney World and Six Flags Great Adventure. In spite of careful use of balloons we have found balloons from New Jersey and from Indiana on Nantucket

The helium used to fill our balloons is an essential laboratory and industrial gas that is in limited supply. “Helium was first extracted from the rock where it resides along with natural gas in Kansas in 1903…Because it can be chilled to almost zero in liquid form, it is the coldest liquid on Earth and as such a very useful tool, especially due to its stable and safe nature. Its main function in the world of science is in cryogenics, where it is used to cool the superconductor magnets used in MRI scanners. These cooling properties can also be used to cool nuclear reactors, and it is also a very common carrier gas used in laboratory experiments. In fact, its use is so widespread that prices are already skyrocketing in anticipation of it running out. China’s entrance into the industrial world, as well as refinery shutdowns around the globe have led to the demand for helium outweighing the potential supply. Despite being the second most abundant observable element in the universe, on Earth it is in relatively short supply, at only 5.2 parts per million. The largest reserve of helium in the United States is a ten billion cubic feet quantity of the gas in Texas; however, this amount is expected to dwindle to three billion cubic feet in only a matter of years. Such a decline in its abundance has sparked growing concern amid the scientific community.” (from This article in the Huffington post goes into greater depth about the ups and downs (pun intended) of this commodity

Last but not least, is the litter, and there is a lot of that. This is primarily why the Clean Team was one of the very first groups to sign on to the cause. From late April to late October, the Nantucket Clean Team’s many volunteers pick up litter around the island. One of the most prevalent items is balloons trailing tangled balls of string wrapped around seaweed and other trash. On a recent trip to Coatue, Clean Team volunteers picked up over 30 balloons in just 2 hours. Each year that adds up to thousands of balloons.

To determine public interest in and concerns over helium-filled balloon sales, use and release, as well as to assess support for a potential ban of helium-filled balloons on Nantucket Island, the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program (NMMCP), ran a Public Opinion petition entitled — “Stop helium balloons on Nantucket Island” supporting a Nantucket bylaw preventing the sale and use of helium balloons – during the summer of 2012. In 33 sessions at the Farmers and Artisan’s Market, the NMMCP collected 2286 signatures from visitors and residents. That is a significant number of people concerned about helium balloons.

And before you start to ask “what about the children?” the average child is very well aware that helium balloons that get loose will go up high into the atmosphere and then to the nearest ocean where a sea turtle might eat them. Children today are more likely to be well informed about the hazards of litter and the health of our planet than their parents, due to no small part to the last 45 years’ worth of Earth Day related education. Third graders at the Nassakeag Elementary School in Suffolk County Long Island successfully implemented a balloon release ban in 2002 despite opposition from the Balloon Lobby (yes there is one) who contends (then and now) that there is no scientific evidence for balloons killing marine life.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hosts a very informative web site based on their marine debris program released an update marine debris and entanglement report that describes which animals are most at risk and which items are to blame ( and

Fishing line, packing materials tend to lead to entanglement while balloons are more likely to be an ingestion hazard. Directly from the report “Marine debris entanglement is a global problem that affects a large number of marine species. Most research articles documenting the entanglement of marine species in the United States are limited to certain geographic areas and species. Prior to the 1950s much of the fishing gear and land-based disposables were made of biodegradeable products such as hemp rope or paper bags (Laist et al. 1999; Gregory 2009). These products broke down quickly in the marine environment. As plastic and synthetic materials became more popular for fishing activities and land-based use, lost or abandoned fishing gear and non-disposable items made of synthetic material became entanglement threats for many marine species, including marine mammals, sea birds, sea turtles, fish, crustaceans, and even corals. Entanglement can cause decreased swimming ability, disruption in feeding, life-threatening injuries, and death. Laist (1997) provided a global review of marine debris entanglements and found entanglement records for 136 marine species worldwide, including 86% (6 of 7) of all sea turtle species, 16% (51 of 312) of all seabird species, and 28% (32 of 115) of all marine mammal species.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identifies balloons as a commonly reported source of marine debris. When it comes to plastic bag and balloon debris in the environment, sea turtles are most at risk. Balloons and plastic bags, when floating in water, resemble the turtles’ main prey, jellyfish. When turtles mistakenly eat these items or fishing line, their digestive system becomes blocked and they eventually die. What is worse is that researchers have documented that when helium balloons reach the ocean, sea turtles selectively feed on them. In other words, the attractive floating bundles are more likely to become food than actual food. “Of the 41 pieces of rubber found inside all turtles, 32 pieces (78%) were fragments of balloons. When helium balloons are released into the environment, they rise to a height of approximately 8 kilometers before undergoing a process known as “brittle fracture”, where the balloon fragments into long strands. The resulting debris bears a strong resemblance to jellyfish or squid. Indeed, the brittle fracturing of balloons creates tentacle-like structures typical of Scyphomedusae which all species of sea turtles have been documented to eat. This may be the cause for the high ingestion selectivity seen in both pelagic and neritic turtles. Several studies have reported ingestion of balloons by sea turtles and anecdotal evidence exists for ingestion of balloons by whales and dolphins. Worldwide cleanups sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy over the past 25 years have found over 1.2 million balloons, or about 0.7% of all debris items collected. This is in line with our study, which found a total of 0.9% of rubber items on the beach. Although balloons and other rubber items make up only a small fraction of the total amount of debris collected, the current data indicating that turtles may selectively ingest balloons and other rubber could provide guidance for policy makers addressing mass balloon releases.” From “To Eat or Not to Eat? Debris Selectivity by Marine Turtles” by Qamar Schuyler, Britta Denise Hardesty, Chris Wilcox, Kathy Townsend Published: July 19, 2012DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040884 and references within.

The casual visitor to Nantucket may not know that we have successful banned single use plastic bags and have also banned expanded polystyrene Styrofoam containers for the use of food. To that list we can now add helium balloons. Co-signers of the letter advising the Board of Selectman to educate its residents about the adverse impacts to marine life of helium and other lighter than air balloons and the attendant litter were: Mass Audubon, Nantucket Land Council, Nantucket Outrigger, Nantucket Safe Harbor for Animals, Nantucket Offshore Animal Hospital, UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station, Friends of the Field Station, Nantucket Land Bank, Captain Blair Perkins, Shearwater Excursions Inc., Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program, and Sustainable Nantucket. All links above were active, available, and accessed April 19th, 2015. Hope you are enjoying Daffodil weekend!