Suffolk Closeup: Banning balloons is no joke

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The East Hampton Town Board has taken a blow against balloons. It sounds funny, but it’s no joke.

A town law barring the intentional release of balloons has been unanimously passed. It follows action by Suffolk County back in 2005 prohibiting the mass release of 25 or more balloons filled with helium or other “lighter-than-air” gasses.

The East Hampton law is tougher in that it bars the release of any number of balloons. It zeroes in on balloons “made from materials such as rubber, latex, polychloroprene or nylon fabric that can be inflated or filled with a gas such as helium, hydrogen and nitrous oxide …”

“Balloons waste natural resources, litter our communities, pollute our waterways and kill wildlife,” says the measure that passed 5-to-0 on February 7.

Exceptions are made for “balloons released indoors,” “hot air balloons that are recovered after launching,” and “balloons used for the purpose of carrying scientific instrumentation.”

The balloon business as represented by the New Jersey-based The Balloon Council, with a vested interest in its product, is not happy with what East Hampton has done.

A leading proponent of the East Hampton law was Susan McGraw Keber, a dedicated environmentalist and member of the East Hampton Trustees, which has jurisdiction over the town’s waterfront. At the Town Board meeting, she presented members with a proclamation from children of the “Give It Back Club” at the Montauk School.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, the measure’s sponsor, said the town wants “to make people aware all across the country that when you release a balloon it has serious consequences.”

How serious was outlined by those testifying before the board.

Kimberly Durham, necropsy program coordinator of the Hampton Bays-based Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, said: “I have observed the horrific consequences of discarded balloons on marine wildlife.” Marine life can’t distinguish between balloons in the water and jellyfish, a food source.

Some released balloons drift back to shore. Colleen Henn with the Surfrider Foundation told the board about the beach clean-ups it has conducted and balloon litter along the coast.

Lorna O’Hara, public information director of The Balloon Council, told WABC-TV/7 of the East Hampton law: “We prefer education over legislation.”

The county law — in which children also played a part — took form when then Suffolk Legislator Lynne Nowick (R-St. James) received a letter from some elementary school students about helium-filled balloons falling into waterways and being mistaken for jellyfish by sea animals, which ingested the balloons and died. They noted that Connecticut, because of this problem, had banned mass balloon releases and suggested the same sort of thing be done here.

Ms. Nowick got to work, did research, found that balloons represented the most common form of floating garbage within 200 miles from shore and, indeed, regularly kills marine life, especially turtles. She introduced the bill to prohibit mass balloon releases in Suffolk. The measure speaks of how “research has indicated that marine life and animals ingest these as they appear near the surface …” 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.”

Enter The Balloon Council (TBC). As it says on its website, theballooncouncil.org: “An industry has grown from a handful of small manufacturing companies … to one that now produces products that are an integral part of festivities in this county and abroad. At the time that TBC was established, several state legislators were considering well-intentioned but ill-conceived laws which would have severely limited consumers’ rights to obtain full enjoyment from balloons.” It trumpets: “The Balloon Council — Affirming America’s Ongoing Love Affair with Balloons.”

The TBC sought to stop the Suffolk measure but legislators resisted and enacted it. Ms. Nowick, after completing the maximum 12-year term allowed for Suffolk legislators, was elected and since re-elected to the Smithtown Town Board.

The organization, Balloons Blow, based in Florida, advocates alternatives to releasing balloons.

“There are many safe, fun, and eye-catching alternatives to balloons for parties, memorials, fundraisers, and more!” it says on its website, ballooonsblow.org. It presents many. “As we become more aware of our personal impacts on the environment, people are ditching single-use, wasteful products for earth-friendly, reusable and exciting alternatives.”

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