Being a conscientious custodian of Planet Earth isn’t always convenient. From carpooling to recycling, from composting to freecycling, we do our best to consume less, conserve more and reduce our carbon footprint. It seems like no aspect of our lives is exempt from Mother Nature’s scrutiny. Then, just when we think we have it all under control, a new hazard “pops” onto the environmental radar screen. Balloons: they’re not so harmless anymore.
Let’s face it – balloons pollute. The very nature of their purpose begs for improper or irresponsible disposal. Children, who are the major end recipients of balloons, often let go of or break them. Helium-filled varieties are released into the air and land in some distant field or entangle out of reach in a tree. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that in 1999, “more than 32,000 [balloons] were collected during coastal cleanups around the world.” Broken balloons are often discarded on the spot – in parking lots, amusement parks or city sidewalks – and end up collecting along fence lines or in storm drains. Even though latex is biodegradable in its raw form, latex for balloons is often treated with chemicals to make them more durable and last longer, inhibiting their ability to biodegrade.
Improperly discarded balloons have been known to choke, entangle, and cause wildlife to starve. According to Audubon Magazine, “Dead sea turtles have washed ashore with balloons hanging from their mouths, and scientists have found whole balloons and parts of balloons in whales during necropsies.” Biologists have also reported balloons to be the cause of death for various terrestrial animals, including Mojave Desert tortoises.
Helium is a natural resource that exists in limited quantities on earth. It is crucial in many types of scientific research as well as the field of medicine. One of its common everyday uses is in magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. According to scientists, if helium were priced correctly, the average helium-filled balloon would cost upwards of $120. U.S. government stockpiles of helium have dried up, and adequate supplies for medicine and research are becoming difficult to procure. Professor Jim Wild of Sheffield University fears we may soon deplete all available supplies and have to start considering other sources. Researchers are already looking into ways to capture helium from solar winds and mine it from the surface of the moon.
Although this all makes the prospect of using balloons to decorate for your little one’s birthday party iffy at best, you don’t have to eliminate balloons from your family fun altogether. Simply be responsible by passing on the helium and disposing of all balloons properly. If we don’t, the only place we may be likely to find balloons 25 years from now is at our local antique mall.
Carolyn Shea, “How Do Balloons Affect Wildlife?” AudubonMagazine.org
Peter C. Hibbard, “Balloons’ Effect on the Environment,” NYTimes.com
Julie Rodriguez, “How Party Balloons are Depleting One of Earth’s Most Valuable Resources,” Care2.com