Reasons to ban helium-filled balloons

When I was a kid, helium balloons signaled that a party was special. Ordinary balloons filled with ordinary air were ordinary. Helium balloons could fly high, and helium itself could make anyone speak in a funny voice. I’ll bet many of you have similar memories.

Little did we know that each balloon that floated up and away was an ecological disaster waiting to happen. It’s just that we would not be aware of it.

Helium balloons rise because helium is lighter than air. And according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), helium-filled Mylar® balloons can rise as high as five miles above the earth. That’s more than 26,000 feet.

Mylar® balloons, made from a resin called polyethylene terephthalate, is a metallic foil that conducts electricity and can even cause outages when tangled in power lines.

At extreme heights, balloons can be carried by air currents hundreds or even thousands of miles. But what goes up must come down. And often it’s in water – ponds, rivers, lakes, and oceans. There they become attractive nuisances for all kinds of wildlife. Ribbons and string can entangle sea turtles, fish, and other marine life. Sea turtles often mistake balloons for jellyfish and eat them, resulting in a slow, painful death.

And even when balloons don’t travel great distances, land-based animals, including domestic livestock, can choke on strings and ribbons.

It’s ironic that balloons are released with good intentions at birthday and anniversary parties, weddings, grand openings, parades, and even memorial services (especially for children). We do it without thinking about the unintended consequences. After all – out of sight, out of mind.

But balloons last a long time. Though latex balloons are technically biodegradable, it takes six months to four years to completely break down. And in sea water it takes even longer. Filled with helium, latex balloons can stay aloft for up to 12 hours. A simple helium-filled latex balloon traveling at 15 miles per hour could travel 180 miles before landing.

And then there are Mylar® balloons, which do not break down. They persist in the environment longer than any of the people who released them.

Furthermore, a Mylar® balloon can stay inflated for up to two weeks. Moving at just three miles-per-hour, a helium-filled Mylar® balloon can travel more than 1,000 miles before it returns to Earth. That means a balloon released in St. Louis could realistically reach the Atlantic Ocean before descending.

Suddenly it does not seem unreasonable that balloons released hundreds of miles inland could reach an ocean in just a few days. That’s how waterways can get choked with latex and Mylar® balloons.

Let’s find some other ways to celebrate notable events. Decorate with fresh flowers, greenery, and colorful recyclable paper products. Put younger children at events in charge of a bubble machine. Throw wildflower seeds at newlyweds. And at memorial services, plant a tree or a bed of perennial wildflowers.

And where we once threw rice at newly married couples, we now throw bird seed. Traditions change. On a more personal level, as our family has spread hither and yon, my wife and I have made Thanksgiving our personal private holiday. And guess what? We enjoy the day as much as ever.

If you absolutely must have helium-filled balloons, be sure they are securely anchored so they can’t float away. Then destroy them when the event is over.

Changing established traditions takes time, but it can be done. Someone in charge must be prepared to take the heat for breaking from tradition. In time, though, all will be forgiven. And when everyone learns why celebratory changes were made, most will understand and accept the new tradition.

For all of these reasons, the Fish & Wildlife Service encourages everyone to stop using helium-filled balloons. Is it really worth a few minutes of celebration to put the lives of animals hundreds of miles away at risk? The Service thinks not, and I agree.

With Labor Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to make a change for the better.

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Send questions and comments to Dr. Shalaway at sshalaway@aol.com or 229 Cider Mill Drive, Apt. 102, Hendersonville, NC 28792.

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