Most of us have seen helium balloons floating gently in the sky, either by accident or by intentional release. Watching a balloon disappear into the clouds can seem almost tranquil. But what goes up must come down, with serious environmental impacts.
When in flight, balloons pose hazards to aircraft and the power grid. Mylar balloons have been known to cause power outages and fires when they get tangled in power lines. When balloons lose buoyancy and return to earth, they can land miles from their release site. Balloons and their ribbons persist in the environment for a long time. Mylar balloons are not biodegradable and latex balloons can last up to four years, which is enough time to cause harm.
For communities such as Chicago and Milwaukee, many balloons end up in Lake Michigan, eventually washing up on beaches. Leftover deflated balloons endanger fish and wildlife, which can become tangled in the ribbons and become unable to move or eat. In some cases, they eat balloons, which interfere with their digestion. Eating deflated balloons poses a particular danger to marine animals, including dolphins and sea turtles, which may mistake them for jellyfish.
Once in the environment, like other forms of plastic, balloons shatter into tiny pieces. These “microplastics” accumulate in water bodies, where they are eaten by invertebrates and fish. Microplastics have even been found in parts of fish and shellfish that we eat and in our own bodies. No place in the world seems to be free of microplastic contamination as the tiny particles are easily carried by air and water currents. The effects of microplastics on aquatic life are not well understood, and investigation is complicated by the wide diversity of particle composition, size, and timing in the environment. Keeping plastic waste out of our water bodies is key to reducing microplastic pollution.
On the shores of the remote North and South Manitou Islands, which are part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Michigan, balloons are the most common trash. These beaches are visited by relatively few people – the litter testifies to the long life and range of escaped balloons. During a 1 mile beach walk on South Manitou Island, we collected over 100 deflated balloons with their ribbons, including Mylar and latex ones. We also saw many balloon remains along the shores of North Manitou Island, including beaches that are nesting sites for the Piping Plover, an endangered shorebird.
Another concern is that helium is a non-renewable resource with many crucial industrial, medical and scientific uses, such as in MRIs, superconductors and weather balloons. The United States is fortunate to be helium-rich; we produce 40% of the world’s gas. But there is a global shortage of helium, and projections of future helium demand indicate that we will face serious helium supply limitations within just a few decades.
Next time you’re getting ready for a party or memorial, consider alternatives to helium balloons. For a party, there are banners, flags, paper streamers, pinwheels or bubbles. For a memorial, you can fly kites, light candles, use seeded paper to “plant” meaningful messages (perhaps a native pollinator garden), or organize a tree planting.
If you buy or come across helium balloons, don’t let them get away. In fact, legislation pending in the Illinois General Assembly would make it illegal to intentionally release balloons, which seems wise given that no matter where they end up, they become trash. And unless and until such legislation exists, if you see helium balloons released at events such as football matches, consider asking the organizers to use something other than balloons to create a festive atmosphere at future events.
Let’s enjoy the summer without degrading the environment with helium balloons.
Stephen Hamilton and Emma Rosi are senior scientists at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. Hamilton is also a professor at Michigan State University. They conduct research on aquatic ecology, including the effects of microplastics on stream invertebrates.
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