We’ve all seen the celebrations where they release tons of balloons. Some of you may have even participated in a project in school where you released one with a card for someone to mail back if they found it. This can be pretty fun at the time of release, but not so much for the environment and creatures that call it home after the fact. Here is why you shouldn’t release helium balloons even though it may seem like a fun idea now.
What goes up must come down, and when it does, it leaves behind a mess. Deflated balloons are trash and no one wants trash just laying around. If you were walking along a path you wouldn’t just throw trash on the ground because it’s unsightly and bad for the environment. When you send up a helium balloon, eventually the helium is diffused out of the balloon and it begins to descend. Where it lands is anyone’s guess and this can cause more than just an unsightly mess.
Birds, fish, and especially turtles are among the major groups of wildlife that helium balloons affect. When they see them they think they’re food and ingest them. Once these pieces of balloon enter their digestive system, they don’t break down like food does. This then blocks up their digestive system and causes a slow and painful death for the animal. Sea turtles are especially susceptible to this as they don’t have the ability to vomit. When the body recognizes that it’s not food, many animals will throw it back up. Turtles don't have this ability and it inevitably ends up in their digestive tract. They then end up with rotting food in their system since it cannot move past the balloon, which releases gasses. These gasses make them buoyant and they can no longer dive in the water. Not only does this make them easy prey, but they can get hit by boats, and it prevents them from getting to food. If they aren’t eaten or killed by a boat, they slowly starve to death, all because of a balloon that looked like a tasty jellyfish.
It’s sad to think of a poor turtle dying from eating a balloon. It’s even sadder to think of a child suffering the same fate! Imagine a mother and her child at a park, a young child who may still put things in her mouth that she shouldn’t from time to time. As the child runs and plays, mom watches from a distance as the child finds things on the ground and inspects them. We’ll stop the graphic part of this story here. What happens when this kid finds a balloon and mom doesn’t realize she's put it in her mouth? Balloons are not only a major choking hazard, they can have the same effect on the human digestive tract as wildlife. It can get in there and block the digestive tract, which can lead to emergency surgery or even death. While some of you may be thinking that the mom should keep a better eye on her young child, anyone who has ever spent any time with a toddler knows that they are fast and crafty and can get things into their mouth quickly without you realizing it. It is impossible to keep a constant eye on a child no matter their age and no matter how great of a parent you are.
Effects on Power Lines
When the power goes out the first thoughts are usually things like “did I forget to pay the bill?” or “did lightning hit somewhere?” It’s not typical that you would think, “I bet a balloon did this!” Believe it or not, balloons can sometimes be the cause of outages, as silly as it may seem! The Mylar balloons that usually come in your child’s favorite shapes and cartoon characters are made from metallic material. When these types of balloons make their way into electrical equipment, they can cause a power surge. Not only can these surges cause outages, but they can also cause fires and damage a lot of equipment. In 2012, stray balloons actually caused a transformer explosion in El Cajon, California, which ended up falling to the ground and setting parked cars on fire!
While rare, balloons have been known to cause loss of control and even crashes of aircrafts. The balloons can get sucked into the engines and cause malfunctions, resulting in the plane no longer being controllable. This actually happened and claimed the life of a pilot in 1993 when his plane crashed into the side of a hill after striking balloons and spitting them back out the other side of the engine.
Balloon releases are actually illegal in some places! States such as California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia have banned balloon releases and it may result in a fine for the person at fault. Many of these laws state, “It is unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to intentionally release, organize the release, or intentionally cause to be released within a 24-hour period 10 or more balloons inflated with a gas that is lighter than air.” Then there are even more strict rules by cities such as Nantucket and Provincetown, MA, where it’s not even legal to sell or use helium balloons. If you’re caught you could end up facing serious fines like one marketing company did in 2011. For the promotion of a video game release, the company released a bunch of balloons which then fell into the San Francisco Bay. They ended up being fined $7,000 for the release of all these balloons as it was in violation of California law.
While it may seem fun to watch balloons float into the air and wonder where they will end up, the possible havoc they can wreak when they get where they’re going or during their journey is just too great. Please do not release helium balloons into the air! If you want to use balloons, keep them inside if possible, and if outside ensure they are affixed somewhere that they will not blow away.