Deflated balloons along river appear to be remnants of nitrous oxide use during concerts

Nearly 48 hours after the final Widespread Panic show, the grounds surrounding Riverfront Park were still riddled with flat balloons, left behind by concertgoers inhaling nitrous oxide, according to eyewitnesses. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON –– Noticed deflated balloons near Riverfront Park earlier this week? It’s the aftermath of a subculture looking for a speedy and potentially dangerous high this past weekend. It’s also a glaring environmental concern.

The Monday morning after the three-night residency of Widespread Panic, joggers and dog-walkers alike noticed a rainbow of balloons scattered throughout the dirt and grass surrounding the concert venue, located on the Cape Fear River. Some were lumped into piles.

Shannon Playl works downtown. She said she noticed “thousands” of balloons and trash on her morning run. She snapped a photo and shared it on social media.


“There were clean-up crews trying to pick up the debris, but rain was coming,” Playl said. “I just know how harmful balloons can be to wildlife, especially if the rain washed them into the river.”

Port City Daily surveyed the scene Tuesday afternoon, nearly 48 hours after the last concert, and noticed plenty of stragglers, accompanied by beer cans, at the intersection of Nutt and Harnett streets.

The empty balloons are the result of concertgoers inhaling nitrous oxide, also commonly referred to as “hippy crack” or laughing gas, multiple eyewitnesses confirmed. Dealers are known to set up at music festivals or venues, selling the substance in balloons for $5 to $10 apiece. When inhaled, people experience brief euphoria and giddiness, only for seconds or minutes. Often, users crawl back to vendors for seconds, and so on, making it a viable, but illegal business.

A 2010 article from alt-weekly The Village Voice describes the scene: sellers station across the street from a venue, pump tanks of nitrous oxide into balloons, and then hand them out to concertgoers. The piece refers to the “nitrous mafia,” a ring of hustlers who apparently travel cross-country profiting off the balloon business at music events.

It’s a common drug of choice for followers of jam bands, such as Phish, though the fanbase of the Grateful Dead is credited with popularizing it. Likely, the nitrous balloons won’t be a regular trend at Riverfront Park as a variety of genres come to town.

Balloons were caught in a puddle at the west gardens construction site at Riverfront Park. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

Is this a crime?

Like littering, selling people chemicals for the purpose of inhaling and getting high is also not legal.

Nitrous oxide is commonly used lawfully in medical settings for sedation or pain relief, but the Food and Drug Administration prohibits its sale as a recreational drug. States also have varying laws against using the chemical.

North Carolina has a general prohibition on inhaling compounds to induce intoxication, but it does not go as far as specifically naming nitrous oxide in any of its legislation. Notably, California has outright criminalized nitrous oxide when used to create a sense of “euphoria.”

According to the Wilmington Police Department, officers did not report seeing any huffing on balloons or tanks in the vicinity.

Nitrous oxide is often seen as harmless. It is responsible for very few, if any, overdose or misuse drug deaths each year, according to The New York Times.

However, abuse of the drug can be fatal, especially when people become addicted and use it incessantly, typically with whipped cream canisters or gas masks.

From one or two balloons at a concert, people are more likely to pass out or vomit as a side effect.

Environmental red flags

The balloons strewn so close to the Cape Fear River, an outlet to the ocean, worried passersby who fear the environmental ramifications.

Deflated balloons are commonly mistaken as food in marine environments. Sea turtles on the hunt for jellyfish fall most victim.

“We have large populations of sea turtles off our coasts. We’re very lucky in that respect,” said Bonnie Monteleone, executive director of Plastic Ocean Project. “But unfortunately, balloons do look like fish.”

Monteleone said during a recent “Fishing 4 Plastic” tournament, participants pulled 48 balloons from the ocean in just a couple hours. She noted fishermen had a harder time catching fish than they did plastic that day.

“We’ve got to do our best to keep all types of manmade debris out of the environment, to protect all living things,” Monteleone said. “The balloons are the low-hanging fruit . . . We might need single-use items for drinking or whatever, but we certainly don’t need balloons in the environment. There’s better ways to celebrate.”

Per its contract with the city, Live Nation is supposed to pick up trash left behind from its ticket holders, both in the park and adjacent areas. The City of Wilmington maintains a modest staff dedicated to keeping downtown clean. Plus, Wilmington Downtown Inc. utilizes street ambassadors to tidy the city’s Municipal Services District, where property owners pay additional taxes to fund the service. Still, according to the city, the responsibility ultimately falls on Live Nation.

City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron acknowledges the city got complaints about trash from the shows.

“We are working with Live Nation to identify, address, and remedy all concerns and complaints raised after last week’s concerts,” Dandron said.

Shannon Playl shared this photo on Facebook, questioning how many balloons wound up in the river. One clever commenter wrote: “Widespread Litter.” (Port City Daily/Courtesy of Shannon Playl)

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