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Thursday, July 14, 2005 07:16 am

earth talk

Dear “Earth Talk”: Why is it bad for the environment to release balloons into the air? — George Young, New York

Given that what goes up must come down, balloons released into the air — whether by accident or in large quantities at events — eventually end up as trash on the ground or in bodies of water. In addition — and as any wildlife or marine-mammal protection organization will tell you — spent balloons are dangerous to animals, which often get tangled up in the attached ribbons or strings or mistake balloons for prey and ingest them, wreaking havoc on their digestive tracts.

Indeed, according to the nonprofit organization Clean Virginia Waterways, floating balloons — which may look like delicious jellyfish to unsuspecting sea creatures — are responsible for the deaths of thousands of sea turtles, dolphins, fish and seabirds, many whose populations are already endangered as a result of other manmade threats.

Consumers and event planners should not be misled by industry groups who maintain that balloons pose no environmental threat because they are constructed of biodegradable latex. Even though most latex is biodegradable, it takes at least six months to break down in the environment, and only when exposed to sun or water. So says the Balloon Council, a trade group of balloon makers that otherwise encourages balloon releases and dismisses arguments that balloons are either polluting or injurious to wildlife. Meanwhile, Mylar balloons, though less common than their latex counterparts, are not biodegradable and can be toxic in their own right when ingested by wildlife.

It’s interesting that the Balloon Council labels as “misinformation” claims that wildlife can be injured by ingesting balloons yet duly warns on its Web site that young children under the age of 8 “may choke or suffocate on uninflated or broken balloons.”

According to the Michigan Environmental Council, which coordinated one recent beach-cleanup event during which volunteers picked up more than 4,500 discarded balloons along the shores of Lake Michigan, the solution to the problem is simple: “Don’t participate in balloon releases, don’t use balloons as decorations during outside events, and, when you hear of a balloon release being organized, inform the organizers that what they are doing is littering.”

Mass release of balloons is illegal in several U.S. states, including Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, California, and Virginia, and similar legislation is pending in Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, and some municipalities. Meanwhile, Great Britain’s Marine Conservation Society has kicked off a campaign to educate the public about the dangers of balloon releases. The group is asking corporate and government event planners in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to sign its Voluntary Ban on Balloon Releases.

For more information: Clean Virginia Waterways, www.longwood.edu/cleanva/; Michigan Environmental Council, www.mecprotects.org; Balloon Council, www.balloonhq.com/BalloonCouncil/; Marine Conservation Society, www.mcsuk.org.

Send questions to “Earth Talk” in care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881, or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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