Suffolk Closeup: Poisonous interests

COURTESY OF BALLOONS BLOW Balloons in power lines.

COURTESY OF BALLOONS BLOW Balloons in power lines.

Last month Newsday ran an Associated Press story headlined: “A rising concern? After straws, balloons get more scrutiny.”

I was surprised that no mention was made of Suffolk County’s action against balloons. Suffolk in 2005 passed a law prohibiting the release of 25 or more helium-filled balloons at a time. It’s enforced by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.

How Suffolk enacted its balloon law — in the face of some odd resistance — is an important story. A book I’m writing (my seventh) starts with a story to illustrate a major point of the book: how vested interest and self-interest are keys to how things happen or don’t happen, no matter the economic or political system or what nation is involved.

A company sells a product or a process and it might turn out to be toxic and life-threatening. But that vested interest, that self-interest will drive most companies to stick with and keep pushing a poisonous product or process. Government sets up an office, starts a project, and it might turn out to be meaningless or dangerous, but a vested interest is created and it’s hard to end what has begun.

The government program is pushed ahead.

The Suffolk balloon story started when then County Legislator Lynne Nowick received a letter from several third-grade students about helium-filled balloons falling into the Atlantic and Long Island Sound and, being mistaken for jellyfish, were ingested by sea animals who were killed as a result.

They urged legislative action by Suffolk. The children noted that Connecticut had banned the mass release of helium-filled balloons because of the harm they cause to marine life.

Ms. Nowick conducted research and found that helium-filled balloons represent a common form of floating garbage offshore that regularly kills marine life, especially turtles. She wrote her bill prohibiting the release of 25 or more helium-filled balloons and introduced it.

A legislative no-brainer, you’d figure.

But then along came something called the The Balloon Council (TBC).

This is a New Jersey-based organization of manufacturers, distributors and retailers of balloons. As it states on its website — — it was formed “to educate consumers and regulators about the wonders of … balloons.”

“At the time that TBC was established [in 1990] several state legislators were considering well-intentioned but ill-conceived laws, which would have severely limited consumers’ rights to obtain full employment from balloons.” The efforts of The Balloon Council “have helped curb this negative trend.” The Balloon Council notes the states that passed “balloon release bans” before it “was formed” and lists not only Connecticut but Florida, Tennessee and California.

But then it has a longer list of states in which “TBC has been successful in defeating restrictions” and this includes Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin and Hawaii.

“The Balloon Council — Affirming America’s Ongoing Love Affair with Balloons,” it trumpets at the top of its website.

Vested interest. Self-interest. And never mind the damage caused by the release of balloons and their falling into waterways.

The Balloon Council lobbied in Suffolk against Ms. Nowick’s measure. Nevertheless, it became law. It declares that “the release of helium and other lighter-than-air balloons into the atmosphere has a deleterious effect on the environment when they inevitably deflate.” Many of these balloons “land in the ocean or Long Island Sound.” It speaks of how “research has indicated that marine life and animals ingest these as they appear near the surface because they believe they are spotting jellyfish or other edible resources.”

They then “either choke on the balloon or the balloon will form an intestinal obstruction, either of which will sentence these animals and marine life to a painful death.” These balloons, further, are a “source of pollution.”

As to any need for helium-filled balloons, a Florida-based organization called Balloons Blow, which has been active since 2011, states “all released balloons … return to Earth as ugly litter …They kill countless animals [and] are also a waste of helium, a finite resource.” “Find Alternatives,” is the heading of a section on its website — “Balloons are not the only thing to decorate with. There are many safe, fun, and eye-catching alternatives to balloons for parties, memorials, fundraisers, and more!”

That’s another major point of my book, titled “May We Choose Life,” that virtually all polluting products and processes are unnecessary. There are alternatives in harmony with nature. But those with vested interest, self-interest, destroy sustainability with their lethal products and processes and deny the harm they are causing.