Up, Up and Away with Balloons
(by Kim Dolgin) – It’s time for those of us who care about birds and the environment to stop purchasing balloons. Whether they be made of latex or mylar, or whether they are air- of helium-filled, all balloons pose risks to wildlife, our energy supply, and the beauty of our landscapes. While helium-filled mylar balloons are the worst offenders, any balloon has the potential to cause significant environmental harm.
Perhaps most important to bird lovers, balloons kill animals – including birds (especially sea birds), land and marine animals (such as turtles, dolphins, fish, and even big-horn sheep). How? In some cases, it is because the animal eats them. Balloon pieces are not easily passed through the animals’ digestive tracts, and hence can fill them to the point at which it becomes impossible to absorb sufficient nutrients and resulting in starvation. Ingesting balloons is especially harmful to ungulates, who need to shuffle their hard-to-digest foodstuffs back and forth between the different chambers of their stomach. Latex balloons can also block an animals’ esophagus and cause suffocation. Even if they do pass, the balloon material itself and the string usually attached to it can lacerate the stomach and intestines, causing bleeding and leading to infection. In addition, birds can get tangled up in balloon string when they fly past trees in which balloons have gotten lodged; at best these birds lose some feathers when they tear free and at worst they die of starvation.
Balloons have other, non-wildlife related dangers as well. For example, exposure to latex balloons can cause serious, even potentially fatal, allergic reactions in people who have latex allergies. Mylar balloons (which are good conductors) can cause power outages when they hit electrical wires. And all balloons come down as unsightly litter within hours (latex) or days (mylar).
There is a final reason to avoid using helium balloons: they are a frivolous use of that chemical, a precious and limited resource. Although helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, it is actually quite hard to find usable sources here on earth. Most of the helium that makes its way into the atmosphere floats off into space, and so almost all commercially-available helium is derived as a by-product of natural gas production. It is stored in underground vaults, with the federal government owning the largest stores. Unfortunately, due to high demand – in good part because of the balloon industry — the world’s supply is dramatically shrinking. As you can tell, I wouldn’t think this an important problem if the only result were fewer party balloons; however, because helium is chemically inert and has extremely low boiling and melting points (minus 452 degrees F), it is crucial to the production of MRI equipment, fiber optics, LCD screens, super colliders and silicon wafers. The price of helium has doubled during the past decade, and there are real fears that if helium depletion continues then MRIs will become harder to come by, with a resultant negative impact on patient care. In addition, numerous chemistry and physics laboratories, even those at major universities, are having to scale back their experiments due to helium shortages and price increases.
Although the balloon industry has been promoting latex balloons as “biodegradable” and “natural”, these claims are misleading. Latex balloons take at least six months to biodegrade, long enough to be eaten and to visually pollute. Also, the material making up “rubber” balloons contains not only latex but also ammonia, tetramethyl disulfide, zinc oxide, and artificial dyes – chemicals that are not safely ingested. Mylar, a type of metallicized polyester plastic, does not biodegrade for decades or even centuries.
In response to these issues, five states –Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, California, and Connecticut — have placed limitations on the use and release of helium-filled balloons. Several cities in other states (e.g. Louisville, KY, and Nantucket, MA) have also instituted limits on balloon use. Here in Washington we have no state wide laws governing balloon release, a situation you might consider writing your representatives about.
Fortunately, there are many harmless and festive alternatives available! If you are willing to forego balloons entirely, substitute ribbons, streamers, or tissue-paper pompoms when decorating indoors. Those options, as well as kites, garden spinners, and “dancing” inflated figures can serve your outdoor decorating needs. If you just can’t live without balloons, then fill them with air, not helium, so that they won’t fly away. (Air-filled balloon garlands can be as joyful as helium-filled bouquets.) Always be sure to anchor your balloons securely, tie them with biodegradable string, and pop and then cut them up before you dispose of them properly in the trash. Above all, remember to never release them outdoors!