Balloon releases can be done as a prayer ceremony, to create a photo opportunity, to raise awareness of a cause or campaign, or as a competitive long-distance race. There is considerable opposition to, and legislation against, balloon releases, due to environmental, flight safety, and wildlife conservation issues.
Massive balloon releases gained popularity during the 1980s, and fell out of popularity following research on the biopersistence, distance-travelled, and gastronomical effect on animals.
Akin to a Sky lantern ceremony of Chinese tradition, a group balloon release can serve as a quiet, prayerful group activity at a funeral or solemn occasion. Unlike sky lanterns, which float down after a short time, helium or hydrogen balloons quickly rise to heights in which they can no longer be seen. Balloon releases are also used in celebration, as a substitute to confetti, in order to avoid an immediate mess.
A balloon race or balloon flight contest is a competition wherein the competitors attempt to send balloons as far as possible. It can be compared to a rubber duck race. Postcards are attached to the balloons which are then released. The flight of the balloons cannot be influenced by the competitors. Instead, success in the contest is dependent on the wind conditions and on the location in which the balloon lands. The contest depends on the goodwill of passers-by to find the balloons and return the postcards. A prize may be awarded to the person whose balloon travels the furthest.
Helium balloons are claimed to reach a height of anywhere up to ten kilometres. At such heights, atmospheric pressure is dramatically reduced, so a helium balloon expands as it rises. With temperatures so low, the balloon material is also expected to freeze. Eventually as the material is stretched too thin, the balloon is likely to pop suddenly. An estimated 90-95% of released balloons rise to an altitude of 5 miles where the temperature and pressure is such that they burst into small fragments.
It is also possible for a balloon, under the right circumstances, to reach equilibrium, and remain suspended in the air for some time, until the helium slowly diffuses out of the balloon.
Noted balloon releases
- 1984: At the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California, USA
- 1985: At the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, USA
- 2011: A farmer from Stalisfield Green near Ashford in Kent, England, successfully claimed compensation, after one of his bullocks choked to death on the string of a balloon released by pupils at Lyndhurst Primary School in Camberwell, south-east London, over 50 miles away, as part of a Comic Relief event.
- 2016: In 2008 Radio City 2 - a radio station in Liverpool, England - started annually releasing hundreds of balloons (with messages attached) from the roof of the Radio City 2 "in memory of loved ones that we miss at Christmas time." Despite sustained lobbying by the public in December 2016, DJ Pete Price ignored the pleas and the balloon release went ahead at the end of the programme 'Remember A Loved One At Christmas'. Two leading diving journalists contacted Radio City 2's owner - Bauer Media Group - appealing for this practice to be stopped. Bauer Media confirmed that no company within the Group would conduct a balloon release in the future and a donation would be made to Greenpeace.
- 2017: A three-year-old thoroughbred horse - 'Espoiro' known as 'Feisty' - died as a direct result of a helium party balloon landing in her field. Her owner Jennifer Birtwhistle (a leading horse breeder) told Horse & Hound magazine "God isn't sitting in his heaven gathering up all this airborne litter that is sent up with messages attached to it on pieces of string. It doesn't reach anyone, it is entirely self serving."
- 2017: In March 2017 Poundbakery Headquarters released 500 orange and black balloons. Each balloon contained a voucher for a ‘Go Large’ free Poundbakery sandwich. Poundbakery subsequently apologised on 11 April 2017 and donated £1,000 to the British Divers Marine Life Rescue.
A balloon release in 1986 by the charity United Way Services of Cleveland, in Ohio, USA, was a fund-raising attempt to break the world record for the number of balloons in a single release. 1.4 million balloons were released, but an approaching weather front caused them to return to earth, covering the city in balloons, causing cars to crash, and hindering the coast guard in a rescue mission. It contributed to the deaths of two sailors on Lake Erie (the wife of one victim sued the organisers, and settled out-of-court), resulted in injuries to horses, and caused traffic accidents. A runway at Burke Lakefront Airport had to be closed. The Guinness Book of Records no longer accepts balloon release records.
A number of organisations (for example, in the United Kingdom, these include the Marine Conservation Society, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Tidy Britain Group, the National Farmers Union, and the RSPB) oppose balloon releases, because of the visual impact of the fallen, deflated balloons, and the risk of harm to wildlife and domestic animals which they pose. For these reasons, balloon releases are prohibited in some jurisdictions.
In 1989, after a condemnation of the practice by the scientific community, the Canadian government decided to cancel the planned release of tens of thousands of balloons in Ottawa to mark Canada Day.
In March 2017 the Marine Conservation Society  launched an on-line pledge asking the public to sign an online pledge page to help the charity create an interactive map to show support for bans around the UK.
Within many countries written permission is often required from the relevant airspace regulatory authority. In the UK this would be the Civil Aviation Authority, for releases over a certain number of balloons.
Helium is a natural atmospheric gas, but as a land-resource, it is limited. As of 2012 the United States National Helium Reserve accounted for 30 percent of the world's helium, and was expected to run out of helium in 2018. Some geophysicists fear the world's helium could be gone in a generation. For this reason, balloon releases are seen as a wasteful use of this limited resource.
- Release dove
- 21-gun salute
- Sky lantern (also known as Chinese lantern)
- Balloon statue, a suggested alternative to balloon releases
- "Balloon releases: pollution factsheet" by the Marine Conservation Society. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
- What happens to helium balloons when they float into the sky?- Surfing Scientist
- "Farmer wins compensation after Red Nose Day balloon kills cow - Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph. 2011-05-05. Retrieved 23 May 2012.
- Rosemary E Lunn (9 January 2017), "Bauer Media To Stop 'Balloon Releases' Within The Group", X-Ray Mag
- "‘Nowhere is safe’ - Horse & Hound magazine: Young horse panicked by helium balloon suffers broken neck". Horse & Hound magazine. 2017-03-20.
- Rosemary E Lunn (9 April 2017), "Bolton’s ‘Poundbakery’ PR Balloon Blunder", The Underwater Marketing Company
- Gunther, Shea (21 May 2014). "What could go wrong? Releasing 1.4 million balloons over Cleveland, Ohio". Mother Nature Network. Narrative Content Group. Retrieved 2 July 2016.
- Kroll, John (2011-08-15). "Balloonfest 1986, the spectacle that became a debacle". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved 11 May 2014.
- O'Malley, Michael (26 September 2011). "25 years ago, thousands watched a balloon launch on Public Square". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
- UK Rivers Network; Balloon releases: pollution factsheet
- RSPB Marine and coastal policy
- "Mass balloon releases banned from Council owned land" Plymouth City Council, England, news release
- Releases of 20 or more balloons are prohibited in the state of New South Wales, Australia, under section 146E of the NSW Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997
- Rosemary E Lunn (22 March 2017), "Time Time To Back Banning Balloon Releases", X-Ray Mag
- @tdnewcomb (2012-08-21). "There's a Helium Shortage On — and It's Affecting More than Just Balloons Time August 21, 2012". Newsfeed.time.com. Retrieved 2013-09-16.
- Connor, Steve (23 August 2010). "Why the world is running out of helium". The Independent.
- The Balloons Blow organisation maintains a list of cancelled balloon releases dating from 2014.