Closed Circuit

Photo by Natalie Ortega
On Jan. 13, Archaeologists Natalie Ortega and Nina Rogers were performing field work in Desert Southwest when they found and gathered a number of celebration balloons.

“We were in the middle of the desert,” Ortega said. “We were probably very far from wherever these celebrations were held, but the balloons made their way out here, right into an endangered desert tortoise habitat.”

Ortega and Rogers disposed of the balloons properly, but the experience reminded them of the genuine—and, for many, unexpected—harm that balloons do the natural world.

“Balloons are one of the ways tortoises are killed,” said Ortega. “Released balloons end up anywhere, including the ocean and in this case the desert. The harm they do is not hypothetical, and I don’t think many people realize how dangerous they really are.”

Animals don’t party
Humans may see balloons as festive, but animals see them as anything but. In fact, they may be attracted to the balloons’ bright colors and end up entangled—sometimes fatally—in the object or its string.

In other cases, balloons may be confused for food. Sea turtles, for instance, mistake them for jellyfish and squids and gulp them down. The death that follows is not pleasant; the balloon clogs up their digestive systems and forces them to slowly starve to death.

“The facts suggest that balloons released into the environment really do pose a serious threat to wildlife,” said Wildlife Extra’s Steve Polkinghorne, “and any threat to wildlife today is a threat we could well do without, especially when it comes from something as utterly pointless as a balloon release.”

As Ortega and Rogers were able to see firsthand, releasing balloons at a distance from protected habitats or bodies of water doesn’t prevent them from traveling there and wreaking havoc. Balloons travel far and fast.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offered an example of a balloon released at the Olympics in Nagano, Japan; less than 50 hours later, it was found in Los Angeles, having traveled 5,300 miles. In short, there is no such thing as “a safe distance.”

Finite = alright?
Of course, some balloons are marketed as being biodegradable, but don’t assume that this means they are ultimately any better or safer for the environment.

In a 2017 report by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the organization stated that a large percentage of people equate “biodegradable” with “harmless,” which is far from true.

“Many people do not understand that no balloon is ‘environmentally friendly,’ and that every released balloon becomes litter and can be harmful,” the NOAA reported, chalking this up to a “lack of knowledge.”

Natural latex itself is biodegradable, but even balloons that use natural latex are treated with ammonia, tetramethyl thiuram disulfide, zinc oxide and plasticizer, significantly slowing decomposition and adding to the type of pollution and environmental disruption balloons cause.

What’s more, balloons that make their way into bodies of water will decompose even more slowly. After a full year, a balloon in the sea will retain its elasticity; if there aren’t any holes in it, it can still be inflated as easily as the day it was purchased.

The shocking truth
Mylar balloons also cause serious side effects that should hit home for anyone at WAPA: They can disrupt power service.

This is because Mylar conducts electricity, and if Mylar balloons manage to get caught in power lines, they create a short circuit—a flow of electricity along an unintended path with no or low electrical impedance. This can cause large-scale outages as well as damage to transmission lines, fires, property damage and injury.

In fact, utilities across the country have reported large numbers of outages as a direct result of Mylar balloons, including more than 1,000 in Southern California in 2017, with an average of 200 Mylar balloon-related outages per year in Los Angeles.

“These stories detail the situational awareness and discipline necessary near power lines, at home and work,” said Safety and Occupational Health Manager John Woodard. “Not only is there a shock hazard, but arcing across a balloon could ignite the falling debris resulting in fire. The rule of thumb at home is to always assume lines are energized and to never allow anything within 10 feet of power lines.”

Contributing to the dangers posed by Mylar balloons is the fact that they stay inflated and airborne even longer than latex balloons, often staying afloat for two weeks or more.

“Whatever you are celebrating, there are many ways to do it without adversely affecting nature, the environment and other people,” Ortega concluded. “Please do not release balloons.”

Go balloon free
The Environmental Nature Center suggests a number of ways to celebrate without balloons:

  • ​​Blow bubbles.
  • Decorate with reusable flags, banners, streamers, kites and garden spinners.
  • Rent an inflatable, dancing creature.
  • Make or purchase tissue-paper pompoms.
  • Celebrate with music rather than a temporary visual spectacle.
  • For favors and centerpieces, choose edible or plantable items.
  • Plant trees or flowers to mark the occasion.
  • Make a donation—such as food, books, or money—in commemoration of the event

Dispose of balloons properly
Whether you’ve used them yourself or found them in the environment, be sure to dispose of balloons properly. Pop them, cut any strings or ribbons off, cut the balloons into pieces and put everything into a trash container.

Last modified on March 7th, 2024