A balloon release is a ceremonial event in which a number of hydrogen- or helium-filled balloons are unleashed into the sky. 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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 2018: In February 2018 Quartz Travel announced they would "work with Greenpeace to release 500 biodegradable balloons filled with messages as part of a campaign to reduce plastic pollution at sea." Following mass lobbying by the public Quartz Travel (a British-based travel agent) subsequently cancelled the balloon release on 13 February 2018.
- 2018: In February 2018 EastEnders released balloons during an episode of the soap to mark the death of a character. This occurred three days after the BBC's Director-General announced a three-step plan to remove single-use plastic from operations. "Like millions of people watching Blue Planet II, I was shocked to see the avoidable waste and harm created by single-use plastic. We all need to do our bit to tackle this problem, and I want the BBC to lead the way. Tony Hall, BBC Director-General"
- 2019: On Friday 1 March 2019 an estimated 700 people released balloons in Sunderland, England following the murder of teenager Connor Brown. Ironically this mass balloon release was conducted on the same day that the Independent reported that scientists have stated balloons pose biggest risk of death for seabirds eating plastic.
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. One-and-a-half 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 a coast guard rescue mission. It contributed to the deaths of two sailors on Lake Erie (the wife of one victim sued the organizers, 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.
Industry code of conduct
The Balloon Council
The Balloon Council, an organization of balloon retailers, balloon distributors, and balloon manufacturers, has publicly come out against the practice of releasing balloons. Included in their list of "Smart Balloon Practices" is the message that balloons are "Worth the Weight," meaning that all balloons should be tied to a weight and not released outdoors. The campaign to end the release of balloons includes the hashtag #BeBalloonSmart and a cartoon character named Faraday, named after Michael Faraday, the inventor of the rubber balloon. 
In the United Kingdom, the National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers (NABAS) provide guidelines for appropriate balloon releases in order to minimize potential environmental impacts. These guidelines include the limit to the number of balloons that should be released, releasing only balloons made from appropriate material, and that no materials such as ribbons or strings are included or attached to the end of any balloons that are released.
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 May 2018 a peer-reviewed study by Delia M. Webb was published that revealed 2,223 pieces of balloon litter were found on 39 beaches across Cornwall between July and December 2016. The study entitled "Just a balloon? A local study of the extent and impacts of balloon litter on beaches" reported that some of the balloons found on Cornish beaches had travelled from other parts of the UK, Ireland and Europe.
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.
Overhead power lines
On 9 February 2018 rush-hour trains near Billericay, Essex were disrupted for more than two hours because 50 yellow and black balloons were tangled on overhead lines.
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.
The film Rubber Jellyfish made its European and UK debut on 14 March 2019 in Wimborne, Dorset.
- 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
- Rosemary E Lunn (12 February 2018), "'Quartz Travel' partners with Greenpeace on mass balloon release to promote plastic oceans!", X-Ray Magazine
- Rosemary E Lunn (18 February 2018), "BBC's spectacular 'single-use plastic' own goal", X-Ray Magazine
- Connor Brown murder: Moving pictures as Sunderland marks life of teenager at balloon release
- Balloons pose biggest risk of death for seabirds eating plastic, scientists say
- 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.
- "Guidelines and a Code of Conduct". National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers. Retrieved May 29, 2018.
- UK Rivers Network; Balloon releases: pollution factsheet
- RSPB Marine and coastal policy
- "Mass balloon releases banned from Council owned land" Archived 2011-06-09 at the Wayback Machine 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
- Delia M. Webb Just a balloon? A local study of the extent and impacts of balloon litter on beaches Journal of Litter and Environmental Quality
- [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-43006771/ Bunch of balloons in Billericay halts trains in their tracks
- @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.
- Rosemary E Lunn 'Rubber Jellyfish' film to get European debut X-Ray Magazine
- The Balloons Blow organisation maintains a list of cancelled balloon releases dating from 2014.